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The right to know

In the second of a new series, Jane Martin looks at how governing bodies can best achieve accountability

Some say that education is the most scrutinised public service.

From the Secretary of State to the youngest pupil, targets are set for continuous improvement. Schools are undoubtedly caught at the centre of a complex web of accountabilities - to parents, the education authority, the Office for Standards in Education, and the Department for Education and Skills.

And yet, formally, it is the governing body which is responsible for school standards and needs to be accountable to the public for the standards achieved. The effective governing body should take steps to ensure both roles are fulfilled.

Public accountability for governors is different from that elsewhere in education. It is not professional, such as when Ofsted inspects, nor is it market-driven, where parents and students select schools with the help of examination league tables.

Public accountability ensures the interests of the public are maintained and defended. So how can the school governing body fulfil this important role?

First, make sure the views and concerns of the public are heard and responded to. The composition of the governing body allows for the local "stakeholders" in the school to come together to discuss and agree its direction and priorities.

These discussions, about school improvement, curriculum, staffing and other assets, need to be informed by that wider community. Good governing bodies will try to ensure that all the right voices are given the chance to speak.

This is an important aspect to bear in mind when considering any changes to the size or composition of the governing body and when appointing new governors.

As the guardians of millions of pounds of public money, school governors need to ensure that the budgets are spent wisely and effectively to support priorities. It is no accident that the annual budget must be formally approved by the governing body. Since the latter is responsible for school standards, it is legitimate for governors to hold school staff to account for performance and progress towards improvement targets.

Performance management - ensuring there is an effective policy in place and setting performance objectives for the headteacher - is therefore a key tool for exercising public accountability.

In all its guises, public accountability is exercised by challenging and questioning why strategies and objectives are in place and how they meet the local public interest - in effect, asking all those responsible for a school's performance to say how standards will be achieved.

The authority of the governing body to exercise public accountability is underpinned by its statutory responsibilities, for which the governing body itself should be held to account.

The formal mechanism for accounting to the public is the annual report and meeting for parents - generally regarded as a formal and moribund exercise. There are no quick fixes, but a good report which helps parents understand its purpose - and a meeting which invites discussion and debate - will help.

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