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Speculate to evaluate

What constitutes doing 'a good job', and how can governors check their own performance, asks Nigel Gann.

Score yourselves out of 10. Or out of seven. In effect, that's what the Office for Standards in Education did in a pilot project grading governors last spring. But what do governors mean by "a good job"? What does OFSTED mean by "a good job"? Is it the same thing?

OFSTED says that governing bodies should be setting targets for the school, monitoring and evaluating. But OFSTED's own evaluation sheet focuses on how efficiently the governors conduct their business - well-run meetings, effective communications, meeting statutory requirements.

Many - probably most - local authorities and other support groups have developed evaluation and self-evaluation instruments covering these things. Some of them will be the focus of studies in a series of workshops running this autumn.

Being efficient is important. But there's not much point being efficient if governors don't know what they are supposed to be doing in the first place, or if they are doing the wrong things. There are several questions that need to be asked.

l What criteria are governors using to evaluate themselves?

* What use is an efficient and well-organised governing body if it doesn't make any difference to the education the school provides? Governing bodies should be setting the framework for the school.

* What kind of school do governors want for their community?

Some of the criticisms of governors that have appeared in these pages in the past have stemmed from a belief that local management hasn't made schools any better. Well, first, we don't know that. But even to make that criticism is naive.

Currently, measurements of school improvements are simplistic. Governors' priorities may be far more complex than ensuring that their school is higher in the league tables, or has lower absence rates and fewer exclusions than its neighbours.

Maybe the main task of a governing body is to ensure that the school belongs to the community - that parents and children are happy with it and feel good about it. Maybe governors see this as an absolute prerequisite to school improvement. The school can't "get better" by itself. Parents, children, the neighbourhood may need to feel better about themselves. This is not a turnaround likely to happen in the timeframe in which OFSTED operates. School inclusion may go side by side with social inclusion. And the people on the ground - the governors - will know best.

Toolkits for governing-body evaluation do have a value, but a limited one. They can help governors know how well they are doing in their terms, set against the values that some people think important. But this can be a way of restricting governing bodies to the role that the educational establishment wants to define for them. But what's the purpose of a governing body if it doesn't change the way things are done?

In my book, Improving School Governance, I suggested a list of characteristics that governors themselves value. Efficiency and effectiveness, certainly. But also attributes not highly valued by the world of education to date: democracy, representativeness, accountability, openness, the ability to question the way things are done.

Since then, I have worked with schools to develop performance indicators for the criteria against which they want their governing body to be evaluated. So - does your governing body do "a good job"?

* Nigel Gann is an education consultant. He is author of Improving School Governance: How Better Governors Make Better Schools (Falmer Press 1998) and Tomorrow's Schools: A Guide to Target-Setting for Governors and Teachers (Falmer Press, forthcoming). He will be leading a series of seminars on helping governing bodies in self-review. For more details ring Sharon Howes on 01203 655708

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