Generous helping

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Heads who are kind to their governors are more likely to get loyalty in return. Alison Shepherd reports

Despite the financial frustrations, the mountain of paperwork and the empty seats, governors keep going to meetings and get the work done. And the reason for this loyalty? A few warm words from the headteacher (and fellow governors, of course).

In a survey of 276 members recruited for governing bodies by the School Governors' One-Stop Shop, 84 per cent said the head's welcome was the most important factor in making them feel valued, and 70 per cent said fellow governors had convinced them that they could make a significant contribution.

The influential role of the head is reinforced by a poll of one-stop shop governors who quit within a year of taking up a post. The most frequently cited reason for these resignations was that the head had been too controlling to form an effective partnership. A similar complaint was raised against fellow governors who made the newcomer feel like an outsider with no integrated role in the work of the governing body.

The one-stop shop, a national charity, was set up in 2000 by the then Department for Education and Employment to tap the business world for potential board members who would be willing to use their management skills to benefit schools. By December 2003 it had recruited 794 co-opted (or community) and local authority governors at an average cost of pound;300-350.

In January 2003, researchers from Hertfordshire university surveyed the 27 governors who had resigned within a year of taking up their seats. Then, in the summer, serving governors were questioned about why they had remained in post.

The type of governors recruited by the one-stop shop would form a minority on any board, but both surveys shed light on attempts to fill the estimated 10 per cent of governors' seats that are vacant.

Apart from the role of the head and established governors, the surveys found that a key factor in the rates of retention is whether governors believe their skills are being used to good effect.

Among the disaffected group, a perceived lack of opportunity to contribute fully was cited by several governors as a major factor in the decision to leave.

But the reverse was also true: 70 per cent said being able to use their skills to make a difference while giving something back to the community was one of the most satisfying aspects of the role.

One governor wrote: "I have only positive experiences from this work, which I have enjoyed immensely."

Some in the business world believe that primary schools do not offer enough of a challenge. One quitter said he was recruited under "false pretences" as he had been placed with a primary and "asked to visit classrooms of five to six-year-olds".

Dr Anne Punter and Professor John Adams, who conducted the surveys, said that despite the small number of respondents, governor recruiters could still learn a lot from the findings.

"If headteachers and chairs of governors wish to retain governors from business they will need to encourage and facilitate the strategic role of governors and provide a structure of working which allows governors to be directly and significantly involved in making a value-added contribution," they concluded.

Other common bugbears in both groups included the levels and complexity of funding, an interfering or incompetent education authority, badly run meetings and red tape. Further factors cited were the time needed to do a good job and the focus on targets in education.

Given that business governors' strengths are presumed to lie in the areas of finance and budgets, their concerns about the school funding system may worry some policy-makers.

Steve Acklam, chief executive of the one-stop shop, said: "They didn't like the way school budgets are put together. As a governor myself, trying to understand all the funding streams that make up the school budget is very hard."

Mr Acklam is appealing for heads, governors and education authorities to make the most of the candidates being found by the one-stop shop. At present, just under half of those recruited have yet to take up places on boards.

"We have done the hard part of getting them interested," he said.

"We are going to work harder at the placement process and, if necessary, market directly to schools.

"We can't afford to have these people sitting around waiting."

One-stop shop: 0870 241 3883

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