Platform: Towards an even better governance

The Taylor Committee in 1977 set out, in "A new partnership for our schools", a model which envisaged equal partnership in the governance of our schools as between parents, local education authorities, teachers, and the community. The committee was silent on the issue of pupil performance and standards, partly because of the hold of the professionals on pedagogic matters, and partly because of an assumption that lay involvement would help to secure the necessary increase in effectiveness within individual institutions. But, in all other respects - conduct, staffing, admissions, accommodation, finance and the curriculum of the school - it formed the basis for a radical experiment in extending the powers of school governing bodies.

It is now time to ask whether this brave experiment is working effectively. Are governing bodies delivering the goods in terms of the discharge of their current, stated functions? And, perhaps more importantly, are those functions the right ones now that the emphasis has shifted to school improvement through better teaching and enhanced standards and performanc e of pupils?

On the matter of whether governing bodies are discharging their current functions effectively, the picture is mixed. In terms of the conduct of the school, the concept itself remains elusive. Small wonder that some governing bodies remain unclear about how to discharge that responsibi lity. Tone, ethos, vision, purpose, strategic direction, all are intrinsic to conduct, but the layprofessional boundaries are unclear.

Governing body functions in staffing, accommodation and finance are much clearer. Local management of schools has enhanced the role and some governing bodies have acted effectively to bring financial decisions firmly behind curricular and pedagogic imperatives. Others however have not, and instead administer rather than manage the resources at their disposal. For them, the ability of the school to become the master rather than the servant of its budget is no greater than it was pre-LMS.

The single most important job which the governing body does is appointing the headteacher. Yet, for many governors, when the task of appointing the head occurs there is insufficient expertise within the governing body on which to draw. Some call for help from the LEA or other providers. Others actively shun advice, seeing it as interference. Small wonder then that on some occasions headship appointments go wrong and all concerned live to regret the consequences.

On school improvement some recent evidence, as in the case of Crook primary school, Manton junior school and The Ridings School, suggests that,in failing schools at least, governing bodies may be failing to deliver the hard messages about standards and quality of teaching needed for school improvement. The Office for Standards in Education perhaps needs to make more of governance in their inspections and in their reports if we are to make a reliable assessment of the effectivenes s of governing bodies in non-failing schools.

What are the barriers to improved effectiveness? Different camps see different problems: the failure of government to secure greater separation as between the functions of governing bodies and headteachers; the failure of training to ensure that governing bodies know and understand their powers and duties and how they overlap with those of headteachers; the sheer number and complexity of the roles of governing bodies; the inability of the system at large to apply effective sanctions to those governors and governing bodies which are weak and underperforming.

Despite these differing views about the nature of the current problems, I firmly believe that it is possible to build consensus about what is to be done. The measures I propose are: reducing the number and variety of responsibilities of governing bodies to promote clearer focus on standards of pupil performance, that is, to see outcomes as the priority rather than inputs or processes; asking OFSTED to inspect governance more fully as part of the management of a school and to report on findings in more detail in inspection reports; requiring governors and chairmen to undertake training which itself is of a uniformly high quality; re-instating the clerk as the professional adviser to the governing body and providing appropriately paid and qualified persons to do the job; offering better training to heads and teachers about what governing bodies are there to do and what not; making governing bodies responsible as a condition of grant for setting targets for pupil performance in the light of national, local and institutional circumstances.

If we made these changes, would governance improve sufficiently? Over the past few years, good governing bodies have made great strides in coming to terms with issues of accountability. In secondary schools, in particular, the organisation and infrastructure lend themselves to this particular model of lay involvement. Refocusing functions on outcomes rather than inputs and processes of education should therefore enable the governing bodies of these schools to contribute effectively to school improvement. In large primaries, also, the adoption of the above strategies should improve school governance.

But, the case in small primaries is different. Governance, as currently constituted and operated, is hugely intrusive, if taken seriously, on many small primary schools, particularly those of fewer than 100 pupils in size, that is, 23 per cent of all primary schools. The plethora of papers, powers, duties and functions is overwhelming on the two or three-teacher school. It goes against the ethos, tone and direction of many primary schools. The very nature of many small primaries - one of strong identification with the local community, of close, concerned parental involvement and a close identification with the school right or wrong - means that some primary schools' governing bodies are part of the problem rather than of the solution.

What are the options for lay involvement in small primary schools? Each school might be placed for accountability purposes within the remit of its providing funding body. That body would discharge its duty by setting up a governing council for its schools and allocate to each school a paid, trained, professiona l inspector. The inspector would take responsibility for monitoring all professional matters, that is, admissions, curriculum, standards, quality, staffing and so on, and each school might be required to set up an elected body drawn from parents, teachers and the community, that is, an extended parent teacher association, to take over those functions of governing bodies concerned with such matters as pastoral care,publicity, fund-raising, school fabric and so on. The school's inspector could be charged to act as secretary to this body.

The idea of grouped governing bodies for clusters of schools has never been popular with individual heads. But, in the longer term, where staff and even headteachers might be shared between the schools, this strategy might also help with the other problems, for example, lack of specialist subject coverage at key stage 2, falling rolls and small numbers.

We also need to consider whether to hold governors andor school inspectors to account for their part in the performance of a school. The usual response to this is that governors are unpaid volunteers and as such ought not to be taken to task for failure. But this should not prevent the establishment of proper accountability mechanisms. It might therefore be necessary to empower LEAs and other providers to apply appropriate sanctions to those governing bodies that do not do the job effectively.

Twenty years after Taylor we have made great strides, in terms of accountabil ity, in the lay governance of our schools. Many of us would agree with John Colet's view, recounted by Erasmus in 1512, at the time when Colet made the Mercers' Company trustees of his new school at Paules, "although there is no certainty in human affairs, I find less corruption in such a body of citizens than in any other order or degree of mankind". What we need to do now is increase the ability of governing bodies to improve the standards of performance and achievement of our pupils and of the schools for which they are accountable.

Anthea Millett is chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency and was a member of the Taylor Committee on the managing and governance of schools

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