A system in need of a shake-up
The powers and responsibilities of governing bodies in England and Wales are much greater than those in most other countries with school governors.
In the United States, Spain and Scotland, for example, governors are expected to stand up for and support the school in a constructively critical manner. They take responsibility for school-community and extra-curricular activities and for school-parent liaison; and they are involved in the recruitment of new headteachers and in the school's public relations policies. They are able to ask questions of teachers, headteachers and the local education authority about any aspect of a school's operation and achievements. Governing bodies are a means whereby schools can be held accountable.
In England and Wales, however, governors are responsible for much more. They deal with financial management and are de facto employers. And this is the cause of many conflicts. Lay people have neither the time nor the necessary expertise to fix heads' pay or set budgets - let alone to establish performance targets for pupils.
If the role of governors were reduced to strategic planning and relations with the world outside the school, teachers and headteachers would still be accountable - but lay governors would not be involved in the day-to-day running of schools nor enmeshed in the detail of teaching and learning, tasks for which they are totally unsuited. Those tasks currently allocated to governors that it would not be appropriate for school staff to do could be undertaken by a regionally elected body, which would have the advantage of being aware of more than one school.
Many governors are selected rather than elected. A move towards electing all lay governors would be welcome. A link between school governance and democracy is important in any civilised society - and in Britain that link has been broken by the establishment of grant-maintained schools whose governing bodies are no longer accountable to any local democratically elected body.
At present training has to be offered to all governors. But the offer is not always taken up. Indeed, the 1986 Education Act, by implication, suggests that not much training is needed for certain categories of governors. By requiring that co-opted governors include those from the business community, the Act assumes that the skills involved in running a business are easily transferable to running a school.
This has not always proved to be true. Although many business governors have been very useful to schools, it has often been as much because of their personal commitment as because of their business skills. Governors' experience in voluntary organisations has frequently been shown to be as good as, or more valuable than, experience of working in private sector "for profit" organisations.
Furthermore, the training available to governors varies a great deal in quality - and there are no mechanisms in place that might ensure more uniform standards.
Governor training does not always pay due heed to the diverse experiences, both educational and otherwise, of those being trained. Nor is it always recognised by trainers that governors work collectively, not individually. If training is to become compulsory, as Cherie Booth and Jessica Hill suggested earlier this year (TES, June 21), there needs to be a system of national quality control and some consensus on the content and focus of training. Local or regionally-based training needs to be supplemented by school-based development of governing bodies as teams.
Future headteacher training might usefully include meeting the development needs of lay governors. Some headteachers already carry out this task superbly but it cannot be assumed that all of them are able to do so.
Dismissal of incompetent governors is a problem. If lay governors are to participate in governing bodies on the basis of what Joan Sallis has called their "ordinariness", not their educational or financial expertise, what constitutes competence and what are the measures of incompetence?
Ironically, only persistent non-attendance currently gives grounds for removal. Accountability to the school or to the nominating body should be given much more serious consideration. But the question of appraisal of governors is not a straightforward one. Someone who volunteers to assist in the administration of a state service cannot be appraised as an employee.
To some extent, appraisal of governing bodies already happens in OFSTED inspections, as befits the collective responsibilities of governors. But there are now few ways in which a local education authority can deal with poor governing bodies. Those remedies that exist (principally the removal of powers of financial delegation) can be used only in the last resort, often when disasters have already happened.
Of course, local authorities in the past were not always very good at administering and overseeing governing bodies; in our research we observed several paternalistic and insensitive attempts to make governing bodies toe a local authority line to which they were not committed and which they did not fully understand.
But local management of schools has led many authorities to drop the practice of having local authority clerks (and often officers) present at governors' meetings. As we discovered, an LEA with no clerking service is entirely dependent on the minutes of meetings and its (often limited) contact with LEA governors. Governing body clerks who are fully trained, answerable to a democratically elected local body and independent of the school they service, are an important safeguard against problems arising in school governance.
The involvement of lay governors in the oversight of school management is an important cornerstone of democracy. We should take care to retain democratic procedures for electing governors and ensuring their accountability for their collective conduct of their responsibilities but should also take steps to limit the now rather excessive range of activities and tasks for which governors in England and Wales are responsible. In addition, we should make sure that any measures aimed at preparing governors and evaluating their performance do not exclude those who are not middle-class and white.
* Professor Rosemary Deem is Dean of Social Sciences at Lancaster University and Dr Kevin Brehony is senior lecturer in education at the University of Reading. Their book, Active Citizenship and the Governing of Schools (jointly written with Sue Heath), is published by Open University Press at Pounds 12.99.