Direct line to the outside world
There have been governing bodies for as long as there have been schools. Sometimes they had other names, but they have always been local lay people whose role is to represent the community in the running of the school, watch its standards and see that it is well run.
There have been periods when the system has lost sight of its serious purpose and became at best a formality and at worst a mockery. But in the past 25 years it has won public support and governing now has a strong legal base.
Governing bodies received an injection of direct and well-informed interest when the law provided in the Education Acts of 1980 and 1986 for parents and teachers to have elected representatives.
In 1988 the role of governors was transformed by the introduction of the self-managing school. This change made governors responsible for the staffing structure, the delivery of the national curriculum, the distribution of the budget, appointing staff, setting pay and acting as personnel officer for the school. If performance-related pay is introduced they will share sensitive decisions affecting individual teachers' pay.
All political parties have supported this development. One of the first products of the Labour government was another Education Act, spelling out governors' responsibility for improving academic standards in their schools, writing home-school agreements and behaviour guidelines, and many other strategic tasks.
When you apply for your first teaching post you may well have a governor on the interviewing panel. Even if the governing body delegates this task to the head, it remains responsible for the outcome, though in county (now to be called community) schools, the LEA remains the contractual employer.
Once you are in post, you will find that governors take far more interest in children's learning than they used to. If they did not they would be unable to play a sensible part in decisions about curriculum, staffing, the allocation of allowances to the school's different departments and the strategic tasks of target-setting and monitoring performance. Many older teachers still resent this involvement, but I believe that in future the outstanding professionals will be the ones who accept and respect governors' role, work at building a genuine partnership, and accept that with the present degree of delegation to schools shared decisions are safer, stronger, and more acceptable to those they concern.
Wise teachers will welcome governors into their classrooms, explain their work, share some of their enthusiasms with them, not for self-interest but because this is likely to produce better decisions for the children.
You will hear a great deal about the governing body's thinking and activity. You may be invited to sit in on meetings that are relevant to your work and perhaps even be co-opted on to a governors' working party or committee. When there is an opportunity for promotion within the school, governors will be very much involved in that decision. Should you ever be involved in a disciplinary or grievance procedure, a committee of governors will decide the outcome and another (fresh) group of governors will hear any appeal against that decision.
It is crucially important that teachers should have confidence that decisions about their working lives - from their departmental budgets to pay, promotion and discipline - are made as openly as possible and against criteria which are understood and believed to be fair. It is partly for this reason that teachers have one or two elected representatives on the governing body (one in schools with fewer than 300 pupils and two in larger schools), who should play a full part in its work and be able to explain its decisions to their colleagues.
But teacher governors are also there to ensure properly informed input into the governors' curriculum discussions, to bring teachers' concerns to the attention of governors, and generally to act as a bridge to the staffroom. They have a representative role, but are not delegates.
You will almost certainly participate at some time in an election for a teacher governor and you may one day stand yourself. It is not an easy job, because you may now and then have to put your perception of the interests of the school before your loyalty to colleagues. You may also suffer a conflict of loyalties to colleagues on the one hand and the headteacher on the other. But it is an extremely interesting role and will be immensely valuable as you move into more senior posts.
There is a great deal of controversy over school governors' powers and some senior managers in schools find it hard to accept that all strategic (as distinct from operational) decisions are made by governors. But the important thing is the principle that children's education is a vital community concern for which all stake-holders must share responsibility.
Joan Sallis OBE is the author of many books on school governance and writes a regular column, Agenda, for The TES governors' page First Appointments 19 TESJMAY 7J1999 'Wise teachers will welcome governors into their classrooms and sharesome of their enthusiasms with them' Completing the picture: governors play an integral part in the school, even in the classroom