At the heart of any discussion about the role of governing bodies lies a question about governance versus management. Do governors have too much responsibility? Is it a job for part-time volunteers?
The introduction of local management of schools successfully clarified the division of powers between the local education authority and schools but at the same time created the conditions for a different power struggle between the headteacher and the governing body.
Local management (LMS) brought the public back into schools, allowing the professions to reconnect with the people they serve. LMS means working with the public - informing, consulting, deliberating, justifying. There is no escaping the fact that everyone is in this together. But how best can governors and professionals work together?
In a system of delegated power there must be accountability mechanisms. Governing bodies are responsible for appointing the headteacher, for approving the annual budget and ensuring provision of the national curriculum. These are their legitimate means to hold school managers to account.
I have argued previously (TES, April 11, 1997) that the essence of governance is, "to exercise judgment and take decisions on behalf of others" and that the key skill of a governor is "the ability to participate and make sound judgments on behalf of the community they serve". Governors should not be managing anything - but they should be ensuring that the school is being managed effectively. Headteachers need to consult with the governing body on key decisions, policies and plans.
We need to dispel the "governor as manager" myth, which may have led to disproportionate numbers of accountants being drafted on to governing bodies to ensure the necessary management expertise. Such thinking privileges "expert" governors and disempowers others and, I suspect, deters many others from even considering the role.
The "governor as manager" myth also results in "training up" governors in finance or personnel - and can be extremely frustrating and even threatening for headteachers, many of whom have wondered why on earth they had to explain chapter and verse of the school development plan at 10 o'clock at night to well-meaning amateurs.
Governors are not experts - there is no job description which says they need management skills. Indeed, a recent project which tried to assess the work of governors in terms of management capabilities had to admit failure since the specification was simply beyond the reach of most.
But they do have a right to the advice and guidance of experts. And this impinges on the professionalism of headteachers. If we accept that governors have legitimate statutory responsibilities which they exercise on behalf of the public, then the professionalism of the headteacher must include the provision of information and support for governors to govern effectively. At the same time governors should free themselves from worrying about the paraphernalia of management and allow headteachers to get on with their job, once the mechanisms for monitoring, evaluation and accountability are in place.
Forthcoming legislation is set to make governors responsible for the next management tool in our schools - target-setting. This will raise further issues about the proper role of governors. All the more reason, in my view, that we remain focussed on what governance is all about.
Ultimately, however, governance and management are interdependent. The relationship between governors and headteacher ought to be a partnership of equals enabling a dialogue between the public who receive the service, and the professionals who deliver it. If we keep governance at the forefront of our thinking, perhaps this will be easier to achieve.
Jane Martin is a research fellow at the School of Education, University of Birmingham and a school governor
How heads and governors should divide up the work
Taken from Guidance on Good Governance, DFEE, 1996 The Curriculum
* draws up the school curriculum plan within the overall statutory framework and the policy framework set by the governing body
* ensures its implementation
* is responsible for day-to-day decisions on the curriculum The governing body:
determines a policy for delivering a broad and balanced curriculum within the statutory framework in consultation with the headteacher, including a policy on sex education
satisfies itself that requirements for the delivery and assessment of the national curriculum are being met and that religious education is being provided
ensures that appropriate monitoring arrangements are in place and that outcomes are being evaluated throughout reports from the headteacher