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The start of something big

When it comes to planning, governors must be involved at both the beginning and the end, says Nigel Gann

The governing body is responsible for everything that happens in a school. Nevertheless, many schools ignore this simple fact when it comes to planning. When staff present a policy proposal to the governing body for approval, lay governors are frequently excluded from any meaningful discussion.

Schools find development planning difficult. It is number five on the list of issues most frequently mentioned in inspection reports. What is needed is a procedure whereby governors are in at the start and at the end of each policy and procedure-creating process, helping to lay down the principles that will underlie the finished document. The governors should also determine how the plans will be put together: who will be consulted, which groups will contribute, who will write the draft.

The Office for Standards in Education constantly emphasises that the critical elements in planning are identifying and prioritising the "key issues", and developing action plans which identify steps to be taken and the success criteria.

The governors and staff of Highcliffe Primary School in Dorset have drawn up a procedure which they believe holds good for all school planning. These are the guiding principles: * Planning will be a joint exercise involving governors and staff.

* The plan will be drafted with a set of underlying principles laid down by the governing body or the appropriate committee, and agreed objectives and success criteria.

* The governing body, or the appropriate committee, sets the planning process in motion.

* The completed plan will be presented to, and approved by, the governing body or appropriate committee.

* Where possible, the plan will be part of, and arise from, the school development plan.

* Where possible, the planning process will be consultative, involving parents, pupils and the wider community.

* A named governor will monitor the plan.

* The plan will have an appropriate time scale for its production and approval.

* The plan will have clear, appropriate and measurable success criteria.

* The resource implications of the plan will be stated.

This model can be applied to any development project at any level: reviewing the whole-school behaviour policy; reviewing communications with parents; refurbishing a classroom.

Obviously the process will vary according to the policy or procedure. Nevertheless, the principle holds that both belong to the governors as the body which contains the broadest representation and bears the ultimate responsibility, while seeking to gain the widest possible consensus and "ownership" among those who have to operate or follow the policy.

We are not talking here about a detailed strategy for implementation. What we are looking for from the governors is a set of principles. Policies therefore express what the governing body wants the school to achieve, while staff decide how to achieve it.

The governing body's role is as "starter and finisher". The strategic plan is a summary of its overall vision for the sort of school it wants to see by the end of the period covered by the plan.

The governing body must feel in charge of the process, and the head's professional advice must be heard. The perspective of the head, as the chief executive, will always be given at least as much weight as any other governor's.

It is not surprising that schools have found long-term planning difficult; planning of individual projects is a different matter, however. Once the governing body has identified its priorities, action plans can be put together on each issue. The useful six-part planning model developed by Ofsted (Planning Improvement, 1995) sets out in successive columns: * Objectives: the aim of the exercise, with a recognisable output.

* Steps to be taken: the actions the governing body expects to be followed to achieve each objective.

* Target dates: deadlines for taking various actions and achieving objectives to show whether the process is on schedule.

* Resources: personnel, time and money required. This ties in with the school budget where it may be under its own heading (say, "Projects"). It will specify as closely as possible the actual costs to be incurred. This will allow the governing body to evaluate the exercise against the success criteria and the costs - both one-off and long-term.

* Success criteria: how the governing body will know whether the exercise has worked. Some measures are quantifiable; others will be quality judgments.

* Leadership: the member of staff with responsibility for ensuring outputs, and the governor with responsibility for giving progress reports to the governing body.

This model is useful at all levels of planning, from a simple building or decoration project, to the redrafting of the school development plan.

In the past, governing bodies have not planned, monitored or evaluated effectively. In the early days of the new inspection system, as few as 4 per cent of schools set improvement targets. Nor had schools developed criteria against which to evaluate action in terms of raised standards.

The Government will soon require governors to set targets for test and exam results. Setting targets assumes that most of the factors contributing to success are within the control of the governing body. There are far too many extraneous factors affecting pupil performance to use it by itself as a performance indicator.

But we can set targets for the achievement of deadlines, for the realisation of plans, for the reporting of outcomes. This is how governing bodies can best contribute to school improvement.

Nigel Gann is a consultant in education. His book, Improving School Governance: How Better Governors Make Better Schools, will be published later this year by Falmer Press

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