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Question time is indispensable

Are governors doing enough to help raise standards? Martin Corrick (right) doubts if they are any use at all.

Research on school governors provides strong support for the view, widely held among teachers and educational professionals, that the governing bodies of most schools in England and Wales are almost entirely ineffective.

School governing bodies are characterised by passivity and deference. Their ethos is conservative and worthy, rather than dynamic and progressive. They lack awareness of educational issues and debates. They favour simple bricks and mortar issues above complex matters of policy and strategy. They lack knowledge of the high level aims, options and outcomes available to their schools. The quality of teaching and learning is not the focus of their discussions. They are unclear about their role; they express anxiety about this, but do not express a corresponding desire to become dynamic and effective.

There are several reasons why governors are ineffective. They are unpaid and very part-time. There is no qualifying requirement in terms of knowledge or skill and they generally have a low opinion of their own capacity in comparison with teaching professionals, and are manifestly dependent upon their schools and head teachers. They usually lack access to objective information, and, in particular, to sensitive material such as comparative performance data or evidence of school weaknesses.

Most governor training is inadequate in quantity and inappropriate in content; it is LEA-centred and cosy rather than objective. It does not address the central issues of strategic planning, critical friendship and accountability with any degree of resolution. The high percentage of teachers among governors assists the promotion of a mainstream professional ideology characterised by resistance to change and the "culture of complaint" which is endemic in education at present. Dependency is further encouraged by local authority domination of governors' organisations such as AGIT, NAGM and the National Governors Council.

It must also be said that the task that the 350,000 English and Welsh governors are expected to perform is extremely demanding and would be a considerable challenge for a wholly professional group. Indeed, it is possible to argue that governors are being asked to do what authorities have failed to.

The most obvious consequence of governor ineffectiveness is the absence of a framework of quality and accountability at the immediate, everyday, local level, and the excessive reliance this places on head teachers.

Second, governing bodies constitute a net hindrance to the effective functioning of their schools if they are not carrying out their proper functions. Heads and other staff have to manage and provide for governors, but this resource expenditure is not balanced by a meaningful benefit in terms of strategic planning, critical friendship or ultimate accountability. In such circumstances, given the existence of local authority inspectors and OFSTED looking over their shoulders, schools might be better off without governors.

Martin Corrick is at the Department of Adult Continuing Education, University of Southampton

How to make governing more effective

Measures that could improve governing include:

* An independent national body to provide a compulsory, accredited educational programme addressed precisely to the needs of governance, plus ongoing support and guidance

* Authoritative and independent national governors' guides to current educational issues at termly intervals

* A reduction in the number of governors required by schools (perhaps to six or eight maximum)

* The elimination of local authority governors

* A new category of independent, expert governors selected by interview and appointed where most needed

* One-year trial periods for governors

* Payment of an annual retainer

* Annual report to parents in a required format, with year-on-year comparative data and sections on innovation and school improvement

* The linking of school governance with business and management education

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