As ministers urge governors to dismiss weak heads, Diana Hinds warns that procedures have to be followed
With the Government threatening to "take out" weak headteachers, governors need now, more than ever, to be extremely vigilant when monitoring those who lead their schools.
If governors are to heed Education Secretary Charles Clarke's call to use part of their new pound;125,000 a year leadership incentive grant to remove incompetent heads and managers, they will need to understand the procedures through which they can act.
The recent case of the primary head jailed for three months for forging pupils' test papers highlights the care governors need to take to avoid being kept in the dark.
Alan Mercer, 46, pleaded guilty to 14 cases of forgery after alter-ing answers in his 11-year-old pupils' mathematics, English and science tests.
However, his confession came after months of denial, during which governors at South Borough primary, in Maidstone, Kent, were deceived by his protestations of innocence, and teachers were unjustly blamed.
Andrew Kerry, vice-chair of governors at a rural primary, was involved in a case where governors were kept ignorant for months about the school's spiralling difficulties. They eventually enlisted the help of the local authority and in December 2001, persuaded the headteacher to resign.
The school's inspection in 1995 had identified weaknesses in leadership and management. By 1998, the time of the next visit from the Office for Standards in Education, these had become serious.
After this, the head went on intermittent sick leave, but it was not until 2001 that the governors realised how bad the situation was. When it transpired that key performance documents were missing, the director of education came to a meeting at the school, and the head subsequently resigned (as did the chair of governors).
"The governors should have been asking more questions," says Mr Kerry, who joined the governing body in November 2000. "But the head was so plausible, he had been able to carry the governors with him."
Jane Phillips, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, says that cases like these constitute "a really, really difficult area for governors, where they have to take on a leadership role in the school".
Governors may initially be wary of getting people outside the school involved, as they may feel disloyal. They may sense that things are not going right, but be unsure whether they have sufficient grounds to act.
Evidence is all important here, says Ms Phillips. Governors often continue to hope for the best until a bad Ofsted report acts as a trigger - and there is a noticeable increase in disciplinary procedures post-Ofsted. But governors need to be reading as many reports as they can.
"It is really important that governors have a source of monitoring evidence other than the head's report," she says.
They need to visit the school themselves, see reports and presentations from other members of staff, and make sure that they are given access to Panda (performance and assessment) scores, as well as the annual report from the local authority link inspector.
"If the governing body has qualms about the head's performance, they should get in touch with the link inspector, or the education authority governor support unit," she advises.
"They must also remember that their first priority is the education of the pupils - and if this is suffering, then it is up to them to do something about it."
Attempting to secure the headteacher's dismissal is not, however, the first step.
Neil Davies, chair of the National Governors' Council, emphasises that the point of invoking competency procedures if a headteacher's performance is in doubt, is to address causes for concern "with the view to putting them right". It is not until such measures have been attempted, and have failed, that governors should consider moving on to dismissal procedures. "My advice to governors is to listen, listen to everything," says Mr Davies.
"You are talking about somebody's livelihood, and you have to go into it with a clear mind."
Another fraught issue in the whole process is "contamination" - the need for some governors to remain uninvolved in the early stages, so that if an appeal is brought by the head, or dismissal procedures invoked, these governors are able to come to the evidence with fresh eyes and make a clear, unbiased decision.
Mr Davies urges governing bodies to follow statutory requirements by setting up, at the beginning of the school year, a staff dismissal panel and an appeals panel, consisting of three to five governors each, just in case they are needed.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is robust in the defence of his members and believes that all too often, competency procedures are not used well by governors.
Governors, he says, sometimes jump the informal stage of these procedures (perhaps with encouragement from the local education authority), and move on too swiftly to formal warnings, and even in some cases, dismissal procedures.
"Headteachers seem to be singled out for different treatment here," Mr Hart complains. "Because they run the show, they seem to be treated rather like football managers - if things don't go well, then you get rid of them."