Few school governors can expect to get anything for their efforts beyond the occasional vote of thanks, but governors in the West Midlands are discovering that their expertise can be converted into a high-level, nationally-recognised - and possibly career-boosting - management qualification. And the pilot scheme, in Sandwell, has been so successful that FE colleges and local authorities in other parts of the country are looking to take it up.
"When we first flagged it up we thought we might get just enough interest to run the course," says Wendy Beddall, Sandwell's governor training co-ordinator. "We were expecting about 12 people. In fact about 60 to 80 turned up, and we had to change rooms."
Governors can achieve a national vocational qualification (NVQ) level 4 Certificate in Management by attending workshops and building a portfolio of work-based tasks, all centred on the kind of issues they are already dealing with in schools.
The programme matches up areas such as school health and safety, recruitment and selection of staff, and school development policies, to the more general management development targets set out in the NVQ programme - contributing to improvements at work, managing the use of physical and financial resources, developing productive working relationships, and providing information to support decision-making.
"It's a management qualification," stresses education consultant Nick Dodds, who designed the course, "not a governor qualification. It's about how governors manage - along with other governors, the head and teachers - the whole enterprise which is called school."
From the initial flurry of interest, 15 were chosen for the pilot scheme, of which six have completed the programme; they have also trained as assessors and mentors for the second group of 15. Seven others from the first group are near completing the course. Drop-out rates have been low, and praise for the course is high.
"It was a great opportunity to stand back from the governor role and look at it in a new light," says Sandra Caddick, chair of governors at a primary school, and one of the first group to be awarded the qualification. "It made me much more confident, for example when we were OFSTEDed." She found the level of work equivalent to working for her social sciences degree; and she says having the qualification "didn't hinder her at all" in her promotion from careers adviser to careers education co-ordinator.
"There are a lot of governors doing a lot of good work," says Jackie Price, an office manager and primary school governor, who has also completed the programme, "and it's nice to get some appreciation for a change." She valued learning "where to go for information when you didn't have it" and also felt she had gained confidence.
"While I always thought I could do it, now I know I can. I employed a new head while I was on the course and although I might have felt out of depth dealing with that as a lay person, I found that I didn't."
For Dave Mansell, a BT customer services manager, and vice-chair of governors at a primary school, "much of the value of the course comes from other people. You get a lot of knowledge and information from talking things through with them, and it could be especially helpful for people on a governing body where the atmosphere is a bit awkward."
It costs about pound;700 per governor to run such a course, but the rewards seem worth it. Governors get a useful qualification in return for their voluntary efforts, and feedback from heads and chairs of governors shows an overwhelming conviction that participants bring new skills, focus and confidence to governing; the course helps everyone involved in running their schools to work more effectively together.
"For instance, one of the things they have to do is design an induction policy for new governors," says Wendy Beddall. "You can hear of new governors who go for six months without even being introduced to the other governors. And since most governors don't like to open their mouths for six months at least, that can come down to a waste of a whole 12 months' time and effort."
The scheme has been jointly funded by Sandwell education authority and Sandwell Training and Enterprise Council for an initial three years, and included in the authority's education development plan as part of the professional development of management in schools, but it looks likely to continue beyond that.
However, while more colleges and education authorities are approaching Nick Dodds about adopting the programme, and Wendy Beddall is speculating about authorities being able to call on super-governors to help turn round failing schools, not everyone is keen to see governors develop their managerial muscles. Some heads in other parts of the country have made it plain that they would not welcome such a programme.
And Nick Dodds is frustrated that the Government, while mouthing fine words about the value and responsibilities of school governors, won't "walk the talk" when it comes to forward-looking ways of training them.
For more information contact Wendy Beddall on 0121-569 8507, or Nick Dodds on 01922-648157