Laurence Pollock reports on the options open to governors as inspectors talk up their management role.
GOVERNORS, some believe, are being asked to take a step forward by the Office for Standards in Education.
From September, inspectors will be taking a more detailed look at the board: does it help shape the vision and direction of the school, understand its strengths and weaknesses, challenge and support senior managers, and ensure legal requirements are met?
Key players in school management, from heads to governors, have a range of views about whether this means an enhanced leadership role for boards, and the practicalities involved (see TES, May 30). But if governors are to play a bigger part in school leadership, how will they go about it and where will they get the expertise?
Most governor training is practical and sometimes taken up in an ad hoc way. Heads have their National College for School Leadership. Even clerks now have national training and awards.
So where can governors go? Taking an MBA at the Open University business school might be over the top. But leadership expert Mark Fenton-O'Creevy has some pointers which make a more strategic role achievable.
"There is a lot of literature around but usually it is about leadership of large companies. The image of the macho hero leading from the front is not terribly helpful.
"We need to think about 'distributive' leadership, with more than one person showing these characteristics. We should think less of a leader giving birth to a vision and more of midwives overseeing a multiple birth."
Mr Fenton-O'Creevy, a co-opted board member at a first school, says the way governors think about themselves is important. When challenging school management they need to learn how to question procedures without threatening egos. He is a strong advocate of the "naive" question that asks why things have always been done a particular way.
But the biggest change may be orientation: "Increasingly, governors have to be outward facing. The environment is changing quite fast and this puts a premium on networking with other schools, understanding best practice and financial issues."
At the Open University's school of education, however, there is some scepticism about how far governors can make sense of Ofsted's new guidelines. Professor Ron Glatter questioned whether they could take on more leadership further guidance.
"Governors are supposed to have 'a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the school' - but that is what Ofsted is supposed to be there for. And how will inspectors make the judgment about whether the board is supporting and challenging the senior management team?"
Murray Steel, of Cranfield School of Management, also wonders whether boards fit neatly into the new pattern. He believes governors should not themselves lead, but "ensure the senior management team are doing the right sort of leading". Otherwise, he warns, there is a danger of crossing the line into an operational role.
But there are still enthusiasts who believe that a strategic leadership role is within the grasp of governing bodies. Jane Martin, a researcher and author (with Ann Holt) of Joined-up governance: Making sense of the role of the school governor, says the "real good news" is that "Ofsted is reinforcing the leadership role".
"After all, it is the governing body that has the statutory responsibility for the conduct of the school. But many governors still do not understand the potential of their partnership with the headteacher - the senior professional.
"I hope headteachers will not be worried. Most heads know the strength of a good governing body," she added.
Business schools constantly are urging students of management to "think outside the box". And there are other sources of inspiration for governors, outside the corridors of education. The School for Social Entrepreneurs, launched in 1997, aims to give those working in a not-for-profit organisation, often without commercial skills, the ability to make their project a success. Its director, Rowena Young, is a former vice-chair of a north London secondary school, the Langham, which went through a "fresh start" process. She believes the skills of social entrepreneurialism are relevant to governors and could help them develop a strategic approach.
Headhunting one or two visionary governors, perhaps to work with an innovative deputy head, would be a start, she says. But governors may find the daily treadmill hard to get off.
"After Labour was elected, the volume of stuff was immense. I'm not surprised that governors think it's enough just to keep it turning over," she said.
Ultimately a governors cannot be compelled to be strategic, to prioritise and to think outside the box. But there are many who will. The messages from above are encouraging but, as always, incomplete. Leadership pioneers will need a good compass, but may have to press ahead without maps.
School for Social Entrepreneurs: www.sse.org.uk