Give me Jim Hacker, any day

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Lindy Hardcastle answers claims of governor ineffectiveness

It is a crazy system. A group of people of varying ages, backgrounds and experience are brought together and put in charge of a complex organisation of which they know very little. Some are elected, others are appointed by a process of political patronage, or in the hope that they will provide financial support, business or legal expertise, or sometimes because of their religious persuasions.

The elected representatives may be motivated by a genuine desire to serve the community, or they may have a personal axe to grind. Some will see the position as a stepping stone to quite different career ambitions; others regard it as a status symbol or imagine they will be in a position of power. For almost all of them, their new role is secondary to the main business of their lives. Very few have the financial independence and lack of other commitments necessary to give the job the attention it deserves.

With minimal training, these people suddenly find themselves in charge of large amounts of public money, and with huge responsibilities for formulating policies and making appointments. They soon find that their formal sessions are dominated by a few voluble personalities, and that many of the real decisions are made by committees, or by the professionals who know how the organisation works, and what is practicable and desirable.

This system does sometimes throw up remarkable people with a swift intuitive grasp of essentials, clear vision and the power to motivate others to the general good. It also produces ignorant, power hungry people who abuse their position to impose their own half-baked views. The majority though, aware of their own limitations, are happy to follow their more forceful leaders and simply rubber-stamp decisions.

Fortunately the professionals who really run the show go on doing their job, limiting the damage that their theoretical masters can do by restricting the information available to them, fobbing them off with assurances that everything is fine, or swamping them with so much highly technical jargon that they give up even trying to understand what is going on.

Of course, with sufficient application, these well-meaning amateurs can begin to understand the issues and make a real contribution to debate and decision-making. Then after four years, just as they are getting the hang of the things, their term ends and they are replaced by another group of rookies.

Some may be re-elected for a second term, if they have not been too discouraged by the high demands and meagre rewards of the job; and certainly many of the appointees become permanent fixtures. Unfortunately they are often poor attenders, with a tendency to doze off during long tedious discussions.

This is clearly no way to run a school, or a country, but this description above applies equally to both. Martin Corrick (Governors' page, TES, February 9) has some radical suggestions for reform.

The House of Lords - sorry, I mean local education authority governors - should be "eliminated" (not so much radical as revolutionary!). MPs - no, governors - should have compulsory training, be paid, and appointed, initially for a one-year trial, just like civil servants, in fact. It is not too clear who would do the appointing or assess the success or otherwise of the trial period.

A whole new quango perhaps? What fun! This would produce an altogether more rational system, but one not nearly so much like a democracy.

In the end it is a choice between the amateurish, well-intentioned bumbling of Jim Hacker or the slick, cynical professionalism of Sir Humphrey Appleby. My sympathies were always with Jim.

Lindy Hardcastle is a governor in Leicestershire

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