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Sent off on a mission impossible

How can governors do their jobs without the right powers, asks Jane Phillips.

I sometimes get the feeling that governors are expected to accomplish the labours of Hercules with both hands tied behind their backs. I have got that feeling now.

Take this (true) case study - a case not of heads or tails but heads or chairs.

A newly-elected chair of governors alerts the local education authority to concerns about the competence of the headteacher. The LEA agrees and, in order to support the school, puts it into the category of "schools causing concern". With valuable assistance from the LEA, the chair leads the school through the painful and lengthy process of capability procedure and dismissal.

The governors and staff are vastly relieved by the outcome and are ready to take the school forward. The LEA provides an acting head who applies for the post. There are no other applicants and the chair, in consultation with the personnel committee, decides to re-advertise. The acting head expresses his displeasure.

Following the second advert there are three candidates and the acting head is the best of the three. On being offered the post, he accepts, but on condition that he does not have to work with the current chair of governors.

The appointment panel has a decision to make - head or chair. After a great deal of soul searching, they choose the head. The rationale? Heads are in shorter supply and therefore less expendable than chairs of governors. The result:

* a very able and committed chair of governors resigns from the governing body;

* the balance of power shifts massively in the head's favour;

* happily for the departed chair, he becomes an additional governor in a school in special measures where the head appreciates his talents.

My second case study presents a future scenario involving the federation of governing bodies, now allowed under the Education Act 2002. This looks set to repeat the problems of what, pre-1986, were called grouped governing bodies.

Four similar primary schools agree to form a federated governing body. They all have difficulty in attracting governors but each school has a few active and committed governors who together form the new federated body.

The rules about proportionality in the constitution of this body mean that not all of the schools can have a staff representative. This immediately causes problems for the governing body. The three governing body roles - strategic, critical friend and accountability - become nigh impossible without staff governor presence and input.

The governing body has but one source of information about each school and that is the headteacher. They rely on the head to tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Visiting the schools becomes more like a "grand tour", with no underlying relationship or conduit between staff and governors - not the best way to learn any facts that the head has forgotten to tell you.

The extra workload involved in trying to juggle the needs of all four schools is beginning to tell when the bombshell is dropped - the schools are going to be Ofsteded.

The result: who knows? But what we do know is that governing bodies, in the coming Ofsted framework, will be more closely examined and will be expected to undertake a substantial leadership role in their school(s).

I doubt that it is possible for this governing body to have sufficient understanding of the needs of those four schools to lead them in any meaningful way. They may be judged to have failed and the Ofsted report will reflect this.

So, what are the similarities between these two cases? In both, there is no way that these governors have been able to hold their head to account. In both, the governing body has been disempowered; it has ultimate responsibility without the power necessary to exercise it.

The education system has placed these governors in an invidious position and who could blame them if they walked? Oh, to be in the shoes of Hercules. The Olympians completely armed him for his 12 labours. Who is giving governors the tools they need to do the job?

Jane Phillips is a governor of a primary school and chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, see or tel: 0121 643 5787

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