The Government seems determined that governing bodies should have a role in assessing their headteacher's performance. But do they want the responsibility? Laurence Pollock investigates
Schools, even big ones, are intimate places and telling someone how professional they are - or are not - is tricky.
One of the most sensitive personnel tasks is the head's appraisal, a process fast emerging from the shadows into the policy spotlight. The need for change is being increasingly argued by Government, governors and professional educators.
Currently headteacher appraisal involves another head and a local authority officer.
But a Department for Education and Employment spokesperson said that given governors' responsibility for schools, ministers had realised it was appropriate for them to have a role in heads' appraisal alongside the education authority.
Earlier this year schools minister Estelle Morris said she envisaged the process "involving a nominated representative of the governing body".
The Green Paper - Teachers: meeting the challenge of change - specifies governing body involvement with the process, ownership of the outcome and more specific target-setting.
By comparison, appraisals in the private sector have always been a confidential matter between an employee, a supervisor and maybe one other management figure at most. Can the head bear the details being tabled at a governing body meeting which includes other staff members - both teaching and support staff?
Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association's education committee, acknowledges the influence of business: "We are concerned that the private sector might have a better record on this and we could end up paying them to do the job."
The identity of the appraiser is an important concern for the National Association of Head Teachers. General secretary David Hart said members would be worried about being appraised by governors or an individual governor. "They do hold dear to the principle that appraisal is done by a representative of the LEA and a peer headteacher.
"This does raise complex issues in the light of the dual responsibility of governors and LEAs and the governors' annual review of their head for purposes of enhancement of salaries."
He recognised, however, that there were strong pressures for governors' greater involvement.
"They could perhaps have a role in ensuring that the appraisal takes place."
There is, indeed, strong pressure for governing body "ownership" of the process.
Pat Petch, chair of the National Governors' Council, said there was an expectation of professional appraisal, but this should include the headteacher's work with the governing body. The governing body should commission and appoint the appraisers and receive the appraisal.
"You need something that means you have a full and frank look at the extent to which there is a successful relationship with the governing body.
"I think we have to grasp the issues of accountability. It is extremely important that governors know the outcome of the appraisal - it should not go exclusively to the chair.
"I do not see why the whole governing body cannot be involved - they handle other confidential issues. You need safeguards for where the chair and the head are either too close or too far apart."
Views of the current system vary. In Bedfordshire, one lower school chair, who did not wish to be named, said he felt the process was "not done very well". He had, allegedly, experienced an appraiser being seconded out of the county in the middle of the process. He also supported the spread of governor involvement: "I think there needs to be involvement with the governing body. There's supposed to be an informal link. As an ordinary governor you do not get asked for your opinion. At the moment it goes no further than me."
He was optimistic that more rigorous target-setting would come in to replace "wishy washy qualitative targets". There was no reason for the head's targets to be any different from those the governing body were publicly setting for the school, he argued.
John Goldsmith, assistant director of education in Bedfordshire, said appraisal was about helping headteachers to develop and enhance their practice. But he would not comment on how targets were used: "It is much more complex than just identifying easily measurable standards and achieving them.
"Quantitative targets may be achieved but it does not actually mean there has been a significant improvement in performance. Different approaches are appropriate in different cases."
Roger Adcock, chair at Tiverton high school in Devon, raised the question of what was meant by appraisal.
"It is a key question and there should be agreement on a national system. It should include an assessment of past performance and of the current situation. But there is no point in appraisal without some understanding of how you move on."
The sensitive nerve will probably be heads' willingness to be appraised by a non-professional educator. There is a strong chance that most proposals will bring a loud "ouch" from many heads.
It seems unlikely that the search for a more transparent system with a greater role for governors will easily be fulfilled.