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Play to your governing body's strengths if you want to keep a lid on your rising workload, says Denise Bates.

ANYONE involved with school governance cannot fail to have noticed its increasing complexity. With governors voicing concerns about the range of their responsibilities and the time commitment required from a conscientious governor, are we having too much asked of us or is the workload manageable?

During the past eight years I have been a governor of two primary schools - serving part of that time concurrently. Both schools enjoy the committed and informed involvement of their governors and both schools are successful. At school A I devoted more time to governor business than I have at school B. Yet fewer hours have not meant an abdication of the responsibilities of governance. It has freed up time for reflective practice.

The two schools have chosen to operate in different ways. During my time at school A, issues tended to be referred to a sub-committee for detailed consideration and recommendations. The strengths of this were transparency and real depth of involvement in governance for those governors who wanted it. Ensuring that all categories of governor were included on each sub-committee avoided the actual or perceived marginalisation of any class of governor.

However, timing meetings to suit all participants was sometimes problematic. Also, if a governor with interest or expertise in a subject was not on the relevant sub-committee, discussions could be re-run in the main meeting.

School B has a less rigid sub-committee structure and places greater reliance on informal discussions or even the interest of specific governors to progress individual issues to the point where they are presented for formal consideration.

This has the drawback of a potential lack of transparency and could serve to marginalise a diffident governor, so the approach must be managed. The undoubted advantage for dealing with a heavy workload is that anyone with a specific knowledge or relevant interest can be involved in preparing an informed policy.

By prior agreement of the governing body, a behaviour policy at school B was drawn up by the head and then discussed in a half-hour informal meeing with the school's parent-governors. Some changes were made to the draft and there was a useful discussion about interpretation. The complaints policy was drawn up in a similarly informed, though informal, manner - this time involving two parent-governors with practical experience of complaints policies in the outside world, and a teacher.

Both policies were ratified at the next termly meeting without significant additional debate as other governors recognised that those who had thrashed out the details were the best qualified individuals on the governing body to do so. A more formal approach involving a wider range of governors would have been more time-consuming without necessarily resulting in better policies.

In school governance there is no unique formula for effectiveness. The strength of each school lies in governors and the board being confident with their own approach. School A had some governors who were not in employment and who had time for detailed involvement, while at school B virtually all governors have other commitments, which explains how their particular style evolved.

Where governors are feeling overwhelmed by their workload consider these points:

Do the established methods of working suit current governors?

Are all governors clear about the boundaries of their role or are they including voluntary time in class or running the parent-teacher association?

If members have confidence in each other it is usually possible for each individual to develop expertise on a few issues, rather than everyone trying to master the details of everything.

Work or visits should add value to the school or to a governor's understanding. Do not be afraid to ask what value any duty adds.

Expect everyone to pull their weight while acknowledging that occasionally most governors will have to prioritise other commitments.

Recognise the difference between routine governance and the unusual issue which demands extra effort but for a limited period.

With governors' responsibilities unlikely to reduce, a sensible attitude towards organising work will make for effective use of each individual's time.

Denise Bates is a governor in the north-west of England

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