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Not just managers but also leaders

Governors can be confused about the extent and scope of their role and responsibilities, reports Stephen Adamson

NONE of us can put our hands on our hearts and claim that our beliefs are totally consistent, so it is not surprising to find contradictions in the thinking of governors en masse.

However, anomalies can be worth examining as they might point to fundamental difficulties. The National Association of Governors and Managers' 2003 survey of governor opinions on their responsibilities (TES, February 14) throws up a significant example of just such fragmented thinking.

The number of governors happy with their role in monitoring the national curriculum increased to 83 per cent from 78 per cent last year, up from 73 per cent in 1999. A welcome increase, as the curriculum was once considered the secret garden where governors could not tread.

On the other hand, only a bare majority, at 59 per cent, feel that they should set the staffing level of the school, a decline from 66 per cent the previous year and 73 per cent in 1999.

So in the thinking of nearly a quarter of governors there is a contradiction. If you are going to accept some responsibility for delivering the curriculum, what more important factor can there be than choosing the numbers and types of people who are going to be involved in doing so?

According to the survey, governors have no problems with the overarching responsibility for strategy. Consistently over the years the number of governors who embrace their involvement in establishing the aims and policies of the school has stood only a percentage point or two off unanimity.

But clearly, for a significant number, there is a distinction to be made between accepting an obligation for approving policies (and surely the curriculum is at the heart of policy-making?) and taking some responsibility for seeing that they work effectively in practice.

A clue as to why this is so is given by a related question in the survey.

Asked whether they think it is right that they should make sure that the national curriculum is implemented (a statutory responsibility), fewer than three-quarters (72 per cent) agreed. So for a 10th of governors it is right to monitor the curriculum, but not to make sure that by far the biggest and most important part of it is being delivered.

If governors are not doing this, then who should be? The logical answer, and the one presumably that would be given by the reluctant governors, is the headteacher and senior management.

Throughout the survey, acceptance of responsibility declines the further the subject overlaps with school management. Thus the general strategic role is OK, and monitoring the curriculum is widely accepted, as monitoring can be interpreted as little more than "keeping an eye on".

But move into the more hands-on approach required in "making sure" it is implemented, and that smacks of classroom management. In this view, deciding the staffing level begins to look very much like a management decision, and is even further from the governors' province.

Yet if governors are to exercise a strategic role, it is only right and proper that they should follow their key decisions through.

What all this shows is a continuing confusion in governors' minds about the differences between leadership and management, and the way in which governors and headteachers should make decisions together.

There has been some excellent guidance on the strategic role, but a lot more work remains to be done on its implementation. A school is not a bit of clockwork machinery that you can wind up and then leave to run.

Stephen Adamson is vice-chairman of NAGM, but writes here in a personal capacity

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