The principle of governance is here to stay, but its application could change significantly after the election, reports Bob Doe. Though neither of the main parties says as much in its manifesto, governors can expect their roles and responsibilities to change whatever the outcome of the General Election.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to attempt a wholesale roll-back of governor power. Indeed, the Tories' latest proposals to impose greater autonomy on schools through "locally maintained" status promises to extend that power - or should that be threatens to, since in the past most governing bodies have refused to take on additional responsibilities for staff, premises and admissions by rejecting grant-maintained status. Many governors are even wary of any further delegation of funds where the extra money does not compensate for the consequent loss of support from their local authority.
Before these moves to increase all governors' responsibilities were drawn up by Tory party managers, education ministers were privately signalling that the Conservatives would review the whole question of governors' roles.
The priority now for both parties is driving up standards, and there is widespread concern that governing bodies are not challenging schools and raising expectations as much as was hoped. Whether it realises it or not, Labour will also have to review the position of governors, for similar reasons. Labour's own plans to create new categories of schools and to delegate more powers to them mean that it would also need to reconsider the responsibilities of local education authorities - and therefore governors.
Many more local authority powers were handed over to governing bodies by the 1988 Education Act than was ever envisaged when governing bodies were established in their present form by the 1986 Act, and there is a widespread belief that the time is right for a review. Writing in The TES last year, Cherie Booth, a specialist in education law, a school governor, and wife of the Labour leader, argued for more checks and balances on governors' "sweeping powers".
A Labour government would be under particular pressure from its supporters in local government to restore their powers over schools. This could even become a battleground between old and new Labour factions if a Blair government proved reluctant to abandon the Tory reforms.
The Conservatives, with far fewer local councillors, have a less powerful local government lobby to contend with. Indeed, some in the Tory party would like to dispense with LEAs altogether. However, the reluctance to compel all schools to opt out, and the recognition in last year's White Paper of the role local authorities can play in raising standards and dealing with admissions, special needs and exclusions, suggest a residual belief in their usefulness.
Education ministers have even considered giving authorities stronger fall-back powers when schools show signs of failing.
The Department for Education and Employment has been producing its own secret, internal critique of the performance of governors to form the basis of its advice to the next secretary of state. A confidential internal briefing paper has been drawn up in response to what it alleges were "a number of widely publicised and contentious governing body decisions" which aroused concerns about "whether governing bodies are up to their role".
The paper refers to "doubts about governors' ability as unpaid volunteers to cover such a wide range of duties and responsibilities" raised in the Role Call debate on this page. It warns of governor overload "leading to inefficiency and lack of direction" and advocates "better fall-back systems . . . to allow for intervention where governing bodies prove not to be up to the job".
The chief inspector of schools has repeatedly criticised governors' ability or willingness to hold schools to account for the standards of teaching and learning, to set performance targets for heads, or to ensure budgets are used effectively. That governors of failing schools are often unaware of their school's failures until the inspectors call is seen by some as further evidence of their shortcomings. The school teachers' pay review body has also expressed doubts about governors' management abilities.
The DFEE seems as concerned about governors' unwillingness to carry out government policies with which they disagree as about their competence, and its briefing paper talks of the need to "manage" governor resistance. Which "widely publicised and contentious governing body decisions" it is referring to is not clear. Most of the recent disputes involving pupil exclusions have concerned the actions of local authority appeals panels rather than governors, who usually back staff.
The DFEE briefing paper is also concerned about governors' reluctance to tackle weak heads and teachers. The department recognises that when governors do tackle staffing matters, inexperience makes them prone to procedural errors which are seized upon by teachers' professional associations.
It says nothing, however, about the role of local authorities in providing help to governors tackling staff competency or disciplinary matters. Nor does it examine the record of local education authorities in combating underperformance when they were responsible for staffing. Some are still reluctant, or do not have staff with the necessary expertise, to get involved in difficult competency or disciplinary cases, leaving governors to blunder about in the minefield of employment law.
The DFEE's conclusions do not point to drastic changes, however. "Most schools appear to be managing reasonably well", with governors providing services that would otherwise have to be paid for. New ministers may have their own ideas, but the DFEE paper advises: "There is no rowing back on the general principles of governance which have been developing over the last decade. To do so would be highly disruptive, and would be seen as a slap in the face for 300,000 volunteer governors (in England) and the employers who support them."
Incoming ministers are likely to be advised to reduce the weight of responsibilities placed on governors, to simplify regulations, and to change governing body constitutions to recruit more competent members. Automatic representation for business interests on every governing body, in place of some local authority governors, is one suggestion. Induction training for new governors is another.
The powers of the DFEE and LEAs to intervene will also be looked at again. Last year's White Paper suggested authorities might be given powers to issue formal warnings to schools with major problems, setting out the actions needed to address them.
Local authority representatives want checks on governor power to go further. Some want a bigger role in appointing heads and to be able to intervene in schools by sending in their own teams to replace the governors.
WHAT THE DFEE REALLY THINKS ABOUT GOVERNORS
Governors' strengths and weaknesses, according to the DFEE's confidential analysis
Their services are free Accountability is clear, if weak Most statutory duties are fulfilled Some governors are highly effective Recruitment is good Businesses like staff to volunteer Weaknesses
Distractions from strategic planning Governing bodies vary in quality Not all are fully representative Governors reluctant to take chair or to tackle weak staff Cuts, sackings and appeals are found too stressful Opportunities
Governing bodies could be evened out and improved to become "an important motor in raising standards" with: Improved training and support More consistent representation More realistic governor expectations Consensus on headteachers' responsibilities Intervention where they are not up to the job A review of responsibilities Higher status (like JPs) Threats
Overload leads to lack of direction Limitations of unpaid part-timers Prone to errors in staffing matters Too much advice ignores broader picture