There is a long British tradition of making the professionals who serve us in public life answerable to representative lay bodies or boards. But additional duties have transformed the role of governor in recent years. According to Robin Squire, the schools minister responsible for governors, when our system of school governors is explained to foreign visitors they are "impressed by the responsibilities you carry and your readiness to volunteer". Impressed? Politely amazed is probably closer to the mark. Someone once worked out that governors had more than 800 separate legal duties. Since they seem to be added to almost daily, that may by now be a serious underestimate.
The principal piece of law placing governors at the heart of school decisions was the 1986 Education Act. This put the general conduct of all maintained schools under the direction of the governing body, subject to any specific legal duties placed on the headteacher and the local authority.
Any question or responsibility not specifically allocated to someone else by the articles of government - the legal constitution of each governing body - falls to the governors. This means they must be concerned with all aspects of the school's work, "the whole ethos" as the Department of Education's circular put it at the time: this includes the school's general appearance; attitudes towards the school of pupils, parents and the community; levels of parental support; the information put out by the school; and such issues as whether or not pupils should be required to wear school uniform.
This portmanteau responsibility, following the Big Bang of 1986, is one of the reasons the governors' role has rapidly expanded in all directions. It makes it legitimate for a governing body to ride almost any hobby-horse it wishes, or at least it would have if the subsequent 1988 Education Act, local management of schools and the national curriculum had not given them so much else to keep them occupied. And it provides the head with the perfect get-out for any awkward management dilemma: "That's a matter for the governors to decide."
It is not only heads who find the governors' multi-combat role useful. Faced with expensive demands after Dunblane to "do something" about school security, for instance, what did the Government come up with? A healthy investment of cash to make staff and pupils more secure? No, it made governors report on security in their annual report to underline the fact that it was their responsibility. The Prime Minister wants more school sport and the quick and cheap solution lighted upon once again is to make the governors report on their sporting aims.
The Office for Standards in Education is responsible for raising standards in schools; the Audit Commission for effectiveness and value-for-money. So it is not altogether amazing if they define the role of the governing body as "to maintain and improve the standards of achievement in its school" in Lessons in Teamwork, their 1995 joint publication on effective governing bodies .
So there is no shortage of advice on what governors should be doing, though no governor or governing body could fulfil all their legal duties unaided by the professionals. Governors must, therefore, be clear about their own priorities as well as their duties. Which must they perform themselves? Which shall they delegate? And how will they monitor the results of that delegation? To answer these they need to look beyond all the advice and the lists of legal requirements to the more fundamental purposes of governing bodies.
Perhaps the simplest answer to the question "what are governors for?" is that they are there to make up governing bodies. That underlines the two important points. One is that it is the governing body that is invested with powers and duties, not individual governors. The other is that effective governing bodies must be made up of individuals who reflect the various partners with an interest in the school - the various stakeholders one might have said before the term was politically hijacked.
That means a balance of men and women, a recognition of minorities and an acknowledgement that insight into the daily lives of those the school serves is as much a qualification to govern as experience in education or business management.
The reason governing bodies need to reflect the various interests that make up the school community provides another clue to what governors are for. They are there to answer the questions that cannot be left to professionals alone however capable they may be. questions involving the values, preferences, priorities of that community; questions of subjective judgment, taste and of public acceptability. They are part of the system of democratic checks and balances that ensures public services listen to those who use them as well as those involved in providing them.
Governors, then, are there to represent the interests of the community in its school and the school in its community and to ensure fair play to pupils and staff and high standards. Demands for improvement need to be well-informed and tempered with reality. Experienced governors invariably suggest that governors work with their staff rather than against them, use every opportunity to praise achievement and encourage high expectations, and always ensure they listen to what staff have to say before jumping to conclusions when complaints are made about the school.
But governors need to remember too that they are there to serve the best interests of the pupils and will themselves be held to account for this by the local authority and the parents. The fundamental purpose of the governing body is to hold the headteacher to account for the results of his or her management of the school, a point that can get overlooked since governors are frequently dependent on their head for much of the information and support they need.
But schools are often better at envisaging what they mean to achieve for their pupils than they are at checking whether or not they are achieving it. That means governors have to be sufficiently independently-minded to question standards of attendance, behaviour and achievement where necessary. Governors must also be prepared to challenge the school to come up with more efficient and effective ways of using its limited funds for the purpose intended - pupils' teaching and learning.
If they are not prepared to do this, what are governors for?