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Struggle to hold on to runaway horse

Ministers have a tricky problem - tackling bulging in-trays without taking away governing bodies' key roles, writes Karen Thornton

THE Government is to take another look at its much-criticised proposals to reform school governing bodies.

A working group, chaired by school standards minister Jacqui Smith and including representatives of the main governor organisations, headteachers, governor trainers and the churches, is reviewing the proposals and hopes to complete its work before the election.

It's a timely intervention, as a TES survey suggests governors - like teachers - are suffering from increasing workload. But the survey also shows governors are keen to hold on to key responsibilities, such as staffing, that ministers suggested they should give up.

The TES quizzed members of its governors' information network on key areas of the Department for Education and Employment consultation document.

A surprisingly high percentage of those replying to the TES survey (75 per cent) said they had seen the consultations, though the DFEE did not send copies to schools. The department still got more than 6,000 responses. Both figures suggest credit is due to the governor organisations, which worked hard to disseminate proposals to members.

Slightly more than 80 per cent of the 815 respondents said their workload had increased over the past three years. Only 1 per cent said it had decreased.

Yet they were keen to hold on to staffing responsibilities. Nearly two-thirds want to be involved in appointing staff, and 79 per cent believe they should be responsible for appraising headteacher performance.

There was overwhelming support (94 per cent) for retaining governor involvement in staff dismissals and appeals.

However, only 44 per cent said they had or would start capability procedures against an incompetent teacher - confirming a ministerial view that governing bodies are uncomfortable with this role.

But governors want to retain an interest in pupil discipline, with 69 per cent saying they should review fixed-term exclusions.

Seventy per cent opposed a reduction in board size - not surprising given that it was only last year they were expanded by the sae Government. But while the governor organisations are against grouping governing bodies from several schools, the view from the ground was more mixed - with less than half (48 per cent) opposed.

And while most governors (68 per cent) wanted expenses and believe they should come from outside school budgets, only 43 per cent were clearly opposed to annual payments for chairs. (Just over a third of the respondents had been or were chairs).

Again, the National Governors' Council and the National Association of Governors and Managers claim their members are strongly opposed to such a move, despite backing for honoraria from the Local Government Association.

Views were also mixed about proposals giving the Secretary of State the power to remove whole governing bodies. Just over a third were opposed, and 21 per cent undecided on this issue.

The ministerial working group is expected to focus on those parts of the consultation document where there was most controversy - such as staffing, reforming the size of boards, and external intervention.

In the face of governors' determination to hold onto responsibilities, despite complaints about workload, ministers may instead consider increasing the administrative support available to them by improving clerking arrangements. But governor organisations remain convinced that there will be continuing confusion over board member responsibilities so long as there is confusion about their role; are they trustees, non-executive directors, quasi-managers, or a community link?

Jane Phillips, chair-elect of the National Association of Governors and Managers, said: "There is no agreement about what the purpose of governing bodies is, what they are actually for. Because people have got different views of why they are there, they have different views of what they should be doing. The DFEE consultations didn't tackle this issue."

Governors will be waiting to see if the ministerial working group does.

To join The TES governor information network, see or write with your name, address, and school details to TES governors' information network, Bradley Pavilions, Pear Tree Road, Bradley Stoke North, Bristol, BS32 0BQ

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