Can't get no satisfaction

15th March 1996 at 00:00
Being a governor means responsibility without power, says Ray Kipling

I am a senior manager in a successful national organisation which has a turnover of Pounds 60 million a year. I manage large budgets and groups of people. I am also the father of two young children in state primary schools.

Reading government literature, you might think I would be an ideal candidate for a school governor. But my wife is one and, having had an insight into the job, I wouldn't dream of doing it, because governors have the worst of all worlds - responsibility with no real power.

Worse still, politicians constantly stress how much governors can and should influence their schools and it's simply not true. Grant maintained, LEA, it matters not - the power is in the hands of the politicians and their mandarins.

Organisations run on money. Take away the ability to influence money and you remove a significant part of managing any organisation. Governors have no chance at all to influence a school's income. Central government, which has a stranglehold on education expenditure, having pulled the teeth of LEAs, pretends that local democracy still has some choice on its expenditure.

Maybe councils can choose between schools and social services but nobody is pretending that governors have a say. They find themselves caught in the cross-fire between bickering local and national politicians.

Pay is the biggest part of a school's budget. It is centrally determined and governors can do no more that tinker at the edges. Sure, they can edge out expensive, experienced staff and bring in cheaper, younger teachers - but is that good management? They can increase class sizes by reducing teacher numbers - is that good management?

What governors can do is look at the trade-off between items which are already in short supply: computers versus books; caretaking versus building repairs. And if they step too far out of line, an education official will soon be there to tell them off.

So what is there left to govern? Staff recruitment is important and can make a significant difference. Once recruited, however, the work of those staff is out of the governor's hands as the national curriculum is so highly prescriptive. In such a framework, important management issues such as job content, motivation and development are open to very little influence from the governors.

A further difficulty is the composition of the governing body. At our son's primary school, vacancies for parent governors are always strongly contested. Yet a friend, keen to be a governor, short circuited the system by approaching the LEA direct which was delighted to find somebody to nominate - she was appointed immediately. At our daughter's middle school some of the appointed governors are embarrassingly out of touch and downright patronising at parents' meetings.

In the world outside schools, where much vaunted market forces prevail and business skills are used to manipulate them, it would be impossible to survive with the constraints which are imposed on school governing bodies. I am not advocating further descent into chaos by advocating that schools should be run like businesses, but I think we had a far more honest system before the politicians started pretending to give power to the people through their school governing bodies. Then, roles were clearer, expectations lower and the job was realistic. Now it's a sham.

Don't get me wrong - I admire anybody who is prepared to be a governor in such an Alice in Wonderland world. In case you think I've ducked out, I am on the committee of the parent teacher association, simply raising money. I understand that.

Ray Kipling is deputy director of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution

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