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Now's the time to prune;Briefing;Governors

As MPs hear evidence on the role of governors, John Adams argues that the job has to be cut back before it becomes unmanageable.

For the next few months, school governors, or more particularly the activity of governance, will take centre stage in the education debate. And not before time.

The Commons' education select committee , having finished its review of inspection, is now turning its attention to school governors. It intends to take a broad look at the:

* purpose of governing bodies;

* their membership;

* their powers and responsibilities; and, * whether they receive sufficient support.

At the same time, the Office for Standards in Education is redrafting its schedules for inspection, which will include, it is rumoured, one for the inspection of governing bodies. Such a schedule will, in effect, set standards for governors and it is more than a little surprising that no governors' associations have been invited to participate at the drafting stage.

The first salvo in this debate has been fired by the National Union of Teachers. In its evidence to the committee, the NUT apparently argued for local education authorities to acquire the right to dismiss "rogue" governors (TES, May 21).

Just who decides what is a "rogue" is unclear; nor is it clear what the NUT's reaction would be to a teacher-governor elected by school staff being removed by the authority. However, we may expect to see similar ill-considered proposals surface in the next few weeks.

The function of school governance has grown immensely since the mid-1980s, both in size and scope. Since that time successive governments have, in numerous initiatives, simply added more and more to the role. Virtually nothing has been taken away - and so the task has grown in a largely unstructured fashion.

What we have is a sort of ragout of responsibilities to which successive "chefs" from the Department for Education and Employment have simply added their own ingredient. The result is that now few people would even be able to agree on a definitive list of governors' responsibilities.

Asked to provide a "simple list" of all the things governors need to do, a colleague recently came up with 24 main tasks under four general headings*. Other estimates have listed more than 200 statutory duties, all to be performed, let us not forget, by volunteers in their spare time.

A further complication is a lack of clarity in the documentation of responsibilities. Legislation or regulations may refer to such-and-such a responsibility laying with "the school", or with the "headteacher and the governors".

The National Association of Governors and Managers (NAGM) regularly receives distressed communications from governors who find the role too complex, too time-consuming, or just too ill-defined. Add those pressures to the constant complaint of "initiative overload", and it makes for a less and less attractive "job".

Not only are governing bodies being asked to do more in terms of putting in more time and effort, they are also being required to take on an ever-greater range of responsibilities. This greater range not only takes us away from the primary focus of our interest in schools - that of the standard of our children's education - it also inevitably increases the area of potential conflict with professional educators.

None of this is to deny, of course, the essential role that governors can play in the leadership and management of schools. We know an increasing amount about who becomes a governor, about their skills, experience and motivation. We know, for example, that a significant proportion of governors are, or have been, education professionals. We have numerous examples of governing bodies or individual governors who have played a pivotal role in enhancing the effectiveness of their school and thereby even making up for deficiencies elsewhere.

However there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that many governing bodies struggle to recruit new governors, a situation which is likely to be exacerbated by the changes required under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act. Undoubtedly, a major disincentive to the recruitment of new governors is the size and scope of the task and the time commitment implied.

One obvious response to this line of argument is to say, in effect: "If you think the job is too big, what do you want to give up?" This would not be a useful place to start. It would simply represent a piecemeal, haphazard reduction in the role, the mirror or converse of the previous growth.

What we need is a rethink.

The national debate about school governance should start with the rationale for the existence of school governors and their motivation as volunteers. It must then strictly delimit the role in order that potential governors can perceive the role as manageable and can gain satisfaction from tasks which are both specific and achievable.

In short, greater definition and an agreed restructuring of the job. The DFEE could, for example, commission a proper job analysis which would fit well with two surveys currently being undertaken by NAGM, on reviewing the recruitment to governing bodies and on governors' perception of their various responsibilities.

It should be possible to define the task of school governance in such a way as to meet both the needs of our educational system and the desires and aspirations of existing and potential governors.

John Adams is chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers *Jane Philips, Governing Bodies and Education Legislation 1980-98, "Governors News", April 1999

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