In successive annual reports, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, has pointed out that too many governing bodies are failing to check that their policies are being carried out. "Too few are clear about how to monitor standards or the quality of the curriculum," he says in his latest report.
Although the role of governing bodies is strategic, the law places extensive duties on them. They have a legal responsibility for much of the work of the school and they should therefore monitor performance in those areas.
Monitoring is of particular importance because it helps the school to improve the quality of education. It is an integral part of the management cycle: a school reviews its work, plans collaboratively, implements, monitors progress and carries out evaluation. Without effective monitoring governors cannot be sure that their policies are being followed or that the school is efficient.
Governing bodies should be asking: do we really know what's going on in the school? Do we have the will, expertise and time to monitor the work of the school effectively? If we are not monitoring, do we need help and guidance to carry out the task? If we are unable, or are not prepared to monitor, should we be governors? More important, perhaps, is the general question of whether governing bodies should have such extensive powers if they are not monitoring effectively?
Of course monitoring creates practical and other, more delicate, problems for governors. They are unpaid volunteers and understandably often have difficulties in finding time to carry out their duties. Monitoring needs delicate handling. Many teachers are perturbed about monitoring by senior staff. They are even more likely to be concerned when monitoring is done by governors.
But is it feasible for a governing body to monitor the work of the school effectively? Some first steps are relatively easy. Effective governing bodies formulate a policy setting out an agreed approach to monitoring. They also ensure that all school policies and procedures are clearly set out and regularly reviewed. Governors resolve some of the issues of lack of time by ensuring the headteacher's regular reports to the governing body, or its committees, are sufficiently detailed and include curriculum, pupil, financial, staffing, staff development and building matters.
In many schools targets are also agreed. Often, there are regular performance reviews of indicators such as examination results, attendance and pupil destinations. Benchmarking is used whereby governors are given, wherever possible, comparative information which enables them to compare expenditure, or performance, with that of other similar schools.
Governors frequently make the task more manageable by restricting themselves to monitoring a small number of aspects of the work of the school. They might, for example, concern themselves with key areas set out in the school development plan, or the OFSTED action plan.
This is, however, only monitoring general aspects of the school from a distance. Monitoring teaching and learning is a far more difficult issue. I believe that in many schools little monitoring of teaching and learning takes place because many governing bodies do not have the expertise or the time to carry out the task effectively.
Many governor visits are unfocused. Monitoring the curriculum is a specialist and complex task. It requires detailed understanding of schemes of work, teaching approaches and policies and procedures. It also takes more time than an occasional visit. One cannot criticise some governors if they fall short in this aspect of their work, but should they then make policy decisions about raising standards without a real understanding of what happens in the classroom?
Many governors work actively to support their school. In his annual report last year, Mr Woodhead stated that "nearly all governing bodies need further expertise in order to help to raise standards".
Many governors have wide-ranging experience in, for example, financial and human resource management, or the management of buildings. They can provide the school with a useful external audit by a "critical friend" and their contribution is much valued in many schools.
However good school management practice is, a school should focus on the core activities of teaching, learning and raising standards. We must be realistic and acknowledg e that many governing bodies do not monitor the heart of the school - the classroom.
In its attempt to marginalise LEAs the Government shifted resonsibilities to governing bodies. As a result they have onerous statutory responsibilities and in many cases are uncertain about the best way to meet them. There is now too often a vacuum which the chief inspector of schools states can lead to a situation whereby "the governing body can be left impotent, unsure of what, if any, contribution it has to make; or conversely, can involve itself too closely in the day to day management of the school".
It is time to reassess the situation. Recent well-publicised difficulties at schools have demonstrated some ambiguity in the roles of heads, governors, LEAs and central government. We should acknowledge the many benefits to schools from having active governors but also recognise the impracticality of much of what we expect from governing bodies.
Martin Titchmarsh is headteacher of the Nobel School, Stevenage