Don't mess with ... the guv'nors

1st May 1998 at 01:00
One minute they are kindly souls who tie infant shoelaces and sew angel wings for the nativity play - the next they are power-crazed tyrants who have the ability to hire and fire you. Elizabeth Holmes looks at the varied role of governors

They are volunteers. There are currently 340,000 of them in England and Wales, responsible for the expenditure of more than pound;12 billion a year. The Government depends on them for the execution of its education service, and their mass resignation would plunge the country into chaos.

There will almost certainly be one at any interviews you attend. You may even have one attached to your class or department. Or perhaps your only contact with them is when the chair braves the "reality" of school life for the end of term assembly.

Whatever your experience of school governors, you will find they are central to the running of your school and their powers are far reaching. From appointing staff to spending the school's budget, this group of volunteers must steer your school through all eventualities.

What, then, should newly qualified teachers know about governors?

Most importantly, teachers should be aware that governors have very specific duties to do with staff. Not only do they decide some key school policies - for example, on sex education and behaviour - but they are, in all but name, the employers of teachers. Although the local education authority retains that title, it is the governors who decide whether to fill a teaching post if one becomes available. And unless extreme circumstances exist, the local authority must appoint the teacher selected by the governors.

Every school has a governing body comprising appointed, elected and co-opted governors. Its size depends on the size of the school.

According to the West Sussex Advisory and Inspection Service, the roles and responsibilities of governing bodies can be divided into five key areas; steering, monitoring, executive, accountability and supporting. This split helps to show the scope of activities in which governing bodies are involved. Some of the responsibilities can be delegated to committees, the head or to individual governors, but the whole governing body remains collectively responsible for any decisions made.

Naturally, owing to the sheer weight of the powers and responsibilities which rest with governing bodies, they can make the biggest impact on improvement in their schools through wise policy and appropriate and consistent support for the staff. This is an enormous challenge.

The governors of your school have to meet at least once a term. Between meetings, the headteacher should keep the chair of governors up to date with curriculum matters and other topics to ensure a continuous dialogue between these two aspects of management. The agenda, minutes and related papers from meetings must be made available for staff and parents to read. Usually, teacher-governors can ensure this is done for the staff at their school. The National Association of Governors and Managers sees teacher-governors as conduits of information between the governing body and staff. But beware the umbrella of confidentiality; poor practice can sometimes shelter beneath its cover, when there are very few items which will be truly confidential. These will be minuted separately.

Governors are also involved in teacher appraisal and have the power to award extra points to teachers who have jobs which are hard to fill, or who are performing exceptionally well in their positions: a reward for good behaviour!

But don't feel disempowered by this set-up. There are many aspects of school governance which inject a sense of balance into schools, not least the opportunity it provides for "outsiders" to become directly involved in an institution which is central to their community.

Many schools welcome the help and support freely given by governors with no personal ambitions, and who are generous in time and skills. Some give valuable help, perhaps with IT, reading, art or sport.

Pat Petch, chair of governors at Stanley Junior School, Teddington, and also Chair of the National Governors' Council, has always played a supportive role in the school. As well as being on hand to make 40 spears for "Roman soldiers" and bake batches of loaves for the harvest festival, she also believes it is important to "find the time when staff are happy for governors to visit them in classrooms to appreciate all the wonderful things that the children are experiencing, and to celebrate the work of the school".

Being a governor can be one of the most worthwhile ways for committed people to get involved in voluntary work. However, the good work of a governing body amounts to nothing if it is not perceived as such by teachers at classroom level. If staff don't feel nurtured, supported and appreciated, then the governing body has failed in one of its most important roles, that of being a "critical friend". It can also be a problem when governing bodies appear unaware of their responsibilities, and of their duties. Unfortunately, a situation like this usually only comes to light when grievances are aired.

An example is the case of a teacher who was compulsorily redeployed, contrary to education statute. The appeal was won by the teacher because the governors were not acting within the law.

Then there was the case of a teacher being sacked by her head, in breach of disciplinary procedures. When the governors were finally told, they failed to make amends.

On a more amusing level, governors can sometimes appear strangely ill-informed.

I recall being bombarded with questions by a governor on why I would not be teaching "Roman Britain" to Year 9 pupils. Her inability to grasp the fundamentals of key stage 3 history became farcical as the head tried to rescue the situation.

There are many sources of support for the governing body, from the Department for Education and Employment and the local authority to the National Association of Governors and Managers and the National Governors' Council.

Jenni Watson of Redress*, The Bullied Teachers' Support Network, sees specific problems surrounding disciplinary action. "Governors have to switch off their support for the head. Their duty to their staff is equal to their duty to the head and to the school as a whole, but it is extremely rare for governors to go against what they think the head wants."

Clearly, the strength of a governing body comes from the ability of its members to work as a team, fully using the pool of resources and skills at their disposal. There is no room for mavericks. The head influences governors and vice versa. If there isn't a balance, and professional conduct on both sides, grievances can occur.

There is a current shortage of governors, with some areas affected more than others, and this situation looks set to worsen. The biggest problem seems to lie in finding suitable people with enough time to commit to the school.

Yet new proposals in the School Standards and Framework Bill currently before Parliament will call for more governors, from parents and non-teaching staff, in each school. The Bill is likely to become law in the autumn and will give governing bodies new powers and responsibilities.

Governors are set to have a much more active role in setting and monitoring targets; in consulting, forming and evaluating written home-school agreements for every pupil; and in deciding on exclusions. A parent-governor in every authority will have a seat on the education committee.

New entrants to the profession can gain a wider picture of the governance of their school through taking a few simple steps: u Find out who the teacher-governors and parent-governors are in your school. Ask what the current issues are and read the minutes from meetings. These should be posted in the staffroom.

Do remember, though, that teacher-governors are not delegates. You may pass on your views, but they don't necessarily have to be represented at meetings.

* Attend the annual meeting between parents and governors at your school.

* Find the time to bring visiting governors up to speed with the issues that are facing you in your classroom. Allow them to be motivational and inspirational; you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

* View governors who visit your classes as helpful support rather than critical inspectors. Try to involve them in what is going on, and use them as a valuable resource.

* If you have a grievance with your governing body, you should seek advice from your head, Redress* and your union. Governing bodies have a statutory duty to deal with grievances fairly and promptly.

* When a vacancy arises for a teacher-governor in your school, consider it (although ideally not in your first year in the profession). Governing bodies desperately need the input of teacher-governors, and those relatively new to teaching can give the school an enhanced sense of challenge.

* For advice from Redress, contact Jenni Watson on 01405 764432

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