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Secrets inside the loop

How can we have open debate, asks Stephen Adamson, when heads and chairs keep vital facts to themselves?

Far from being open institutions, governing bodies are riddled with secrecy.

The main reason for this is the role of the chair. Headteachers may at any time share confidences with their chairs about things that bother them. As the relationship develops, head and chair become friendly. They may even become indiscreet, sharing uncensored opinions about people or how they feel about their jobs. None of this can be passed on to the wider governing body, either because it would not be tactful, or because governors must not be given information that might taint their objectivity, especially if they have to sit on an exclusion, staff discipline or appeals committee.

There are good reasons for much of this, but it puts a divide between the chair and other governors. For example, some members of a governing body complained when they had to wait days for rumours that a pupil had committed a crime to be confirmed. The chair had known about it from the outset, but rightly kept it a confidential matter between her and the head.

But such secrecy is not always necessary and can be damaging. Take performance management of heads. Three governors set the head's objectives for the year and judge his or her performance against the previous year's targets. Only they, the chair and the head are allowed to see the report.

Then the chair of this group joins with another group of three to decide on the head's pay. Throughout, most governors do not have the foggiest idea what is going on. Yet performance management is a crucial part of governors' work - it is meant to be a tool for exercising their statutory function of maintaining and raising standards. Secrecy wraps a few more in its cloak if the head disputes the pay committee's decision. The appeal is heard by a panel of three other governors.

So, at the next full governing body meeting some governors will know decisions have been made, but the majority will have no idea what has been going on.

Secrecy creeps in when committees make decisions such as setting pupil targets for the year. A vital part of this work is seen by most governors only when it is reported, well after decisions are taken.

Hierarchical organisations may need secrets. In armies, soldiers have to concentrate on their own jobs and do not need to know the general's overall tactics. But in teams and democratic organisations, secrecy is lousy. No football manager would give key pre-match facts and tactics to just two players.

Hands up all those governors who have gone through a year conscientiously doing their own tasks while feeling that the real action is taking place elsewhere.

Stephen Adamson is vice-chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers

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