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Survival pack for the fittest

Nigel Gann says school improvement should start on the board

HAPPY schools are happy in the same way. Pupils are comfortable, staff have high hopes, everyone feels they belong to a team.

Less successful schools are uniquely troubled. Is it the head who has no vision? Are teachers complacent and self-protecting? Are parents unable to challenge entrenched authority? Are governors busybodies or too distant?

Most school improvement strategies nowadays start with management. "Get the headship right, get senior management on track and the school will be turned around." We all know places where that has happened. But we also know plenty of schools where it hasn't.

Torsten Friedag at the Islington Arts and Media School is only one so-called "superhead" who has blamed the governors. Certainly, there have been too many cases recently of troubled schools where governors resisted improvement. Often, they simply weren't recruited to the improvement movement at all.

Working with the governing body can be the first step in turning the school around. After all, if you're working with the governing body, you are working with the head - and probably senior staff too. The governors should take responsibility for problems: superheads come and go, but governors live on in an under-achieving school.

Improving a governing body should directly improve the head and senior managers, then middle managers, classroom practice and pupil progress. The requirement that the governing body conduct the school "with a view to promoting high standards" means that governors must show evidence of what they are doing.

At Centre for British Teachers, a charitable firm licensed by the Department for Education nd Employment to provide education services to local authorities, we have structures which support our work with school governors. If a governing body has the right structures in place it is more likely to be doing a good job. We call it the governing body survival pack. It includes:

* A governing body planning cycle - not prescriptive, as local education authorities and schools have their own ways of doing things. But every school should publish its own cycle of activities shaped around fixed points such as autumn target-setting, setting headteacher's objectives and the needs of the education authority's development plan.

* The governing body's meetings agenda responding to the needs of the planning cycle.

* A register of the policies and procedures which govern the conduct of the school, and a timescale for governing body review.

* An agreed planning process with appropriate involvement of governors, staff and others.

* A governors' code of conduct.

* A meetings charter defining good conduct of meetings.

* A governors' job description and person specification.

* Job descriptions for the chair, vice-chair, and other roles such as committee chairs, clerk, governors responsible for special needs, literacy, numeracy, and so on.

* A code of practice for governors visiting the school.

* A statement of governors' rights.

* A self-evaluation strategy for the governing body.

These procedures don't guarantee success - but they do weight the odds in its favour.

Nigel Gann is a senior consultant with CfBT education services. For information on the governing body survival pack, please email or telelphone 01935 881100.

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