Freshen up with a new agenda

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Many governing committees are inefficient and dull. Laurence Pollock looks at how they might re-invented to become more dynamic, to cope with a burgeoning workload

COMMITTEES get a bad press these days. The quickest way to raise a groan on the board is to suggest a new one - more meetings, more agendas, more minutes.

Of course governing body committees exist for good reason. The idea is that they should thrash out issues in detail and bring forward well-argued proposals, leaving the full governing body to take a wider view and plan for the future.

But are they really doing this? On-the-ball governors will constantly assess the efficiency of their sub-groups and ask if they are making a contribution. For those that don't, new requirements to review ways of working could prompt a much-needed rethink.

A rethink may be necessary anyway, to cope with growing workloads. Last year's report from the Commons education select committee put the onus squarely on governors to handle the pressures efficiently.

"We believe that governors' workload could be better managed through improved information and better management of governing body business," MPs said.

Jane Martin, education officer with Dudley council and former research fellow at Birmingham University, says the new requirement to review working procedures will give ammunition to governors wanting to spring clean.

But she still does not see committees, however unfashionable, disappearing entirely.

"There is a huge amount of work to get through and with the arrival of performance management, this is going to get worse. Much of that work is going to be done in committees."

There are three statutory committees - covering pupil discipline, staff dismissal, and dismissal appeals. Schools which decide their own admissions policies - mostly foundation (formerly grant-maintained) and some church schools - also must have admissions committees. Other non-statutory committees often include finance, personnel, curriculum, pay perhaps, and maybe premises.

A first go at tidying up a rambling structure could involve mergers, says Diana Penton of the National Association of Governors and Managers.

She says: "Some schools combine finance with premises and resources while others might put finance together with personnel.

"You must work it out to suit yourself. If you have a big school extension in the offing you need a proper supporting committee. If it's just repairs and maitenance then it could go into one of the other groups."

But rejigging a few working groups involves more than just cutting out unnecessary meetings. The structure should encourage effective decision making.

In fact, more radical boards - and smaller schools in particular -- might go down the road of scrapping the traditional committee structure altogether.

At Stanley junior in the London borough of Richmond, a "standing group", meeting monthly, open to all governors, regularly reviews finance.

Governors deal with other issues arising from the school development plan by setting up working parties. Areas needing practical, ongoing support, such as health and safety, are handled by a single nominated governor, who might seek support from another individual.

Working parties often involve 50 per cent of parents nominated through the parent-teacher association and staff. The process is more like a wide-ranging consultation than a formal deliberation. Drafts of new policies will be put to the board, and then come back if problems are spotted. Thus a consensus grows.

Pat Petch, former chairman of the National Governors Council and a chair of governors herself, describes the whole approach as "dynamic - the aim is to ensure a link between those making policies and what happens on the ground". In other words, governors are looking for good decisions, not just quick meetings.

But is all this worthwhile? Peter Earley of the University of London's Institute of Education, and a researcher on governance issues, says there is growing evidence that governing bodies which work well improve school performance significantly. But in order to carry on improving they need to focus their efforts on what's important.

"The annual survey could gather data and information about how well the school is operating and use this to direct governors' attention. He says governors must go beyond the recommendations of inspectors and draw up their own goals, "teachers' morale and motivation for instance".

Earley says this requires governors to be more challenging, indeed research carried out at the institute suggests heads would welcome this. Governors spend far too long on minutiae, he adds.

Clearly, simply relabelling a committee as a working group will not transform a school. But if it is the starting point for rethinking how governors do business and how that translates into more effective education, childen will ultimately benefit.

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