Governor support will need reinvention

26th December 1997 at 00:00
The year ends on a sad and sour note for school governors - though the vast majority will be completely oblivious to the fact. Action for Governor Information and Training (AGIT), the governor-training network whose somewhat aggressive acronym belies its benign and respectable character, has been wound up and is no more.

Its loss will go largely unremarked on most governing bodies, but they and their schools may well prove much the poorer for it.

Set up in 1987 in the wake of the governor-power provisions of the 1986 Act, AGIT's mission was not to train governing bodies directly but to co-ordinate mutual aid for those whose job it was to support governors. Most were in the local authorities charged by law to provide such training as they saw fit.

In retrospect, it seems bizarre to have expected the local authorities - of all people - to assist those who were about to take over so many of the authorities' powers and functions in schools. It was tantamount to asking authorities to dig their own graves; the kind of faute de mieux requirement that only underlined the Conservatives' ambivalence towards education authorities.

Although there are honourable exceptions, in general the priority given to support and training has not matched the heavy burdens placed on lay governors for effective personnel and financial management, oversight of curriculum and development planning or the raising of pupil achievement.

Certainly HM Inspectors found governor training to be patchy and inadequate and, as authorities have slimmed down to the point of anorexia, even relatively governor-friendly ones have found their ability to support governors increasingly constrained.

The previous government did not help matters when it stopped earmarking funds for governor training, lumping it instead into the general school support grant.

No doubt Conservative ministers were keen to see governors buy the support they wanted rather than being reliant on their authority. As the chief inspector of schools reported, however, this simply made governors reluctant to deprive schools of cash in order to fund their own training - however badly it was needed.

Against this background, AGIT has striven for a decade to provide practical support for governor training through its network of contacts and range of governor-friendly publications. It also sustained an important training ethic which accepted (more or less) the principles of local management and accountability. Trainers who did a good job empowering governors might earn few plaudits within their authority, but the AGIT network at least provided moral support.

But no more, thanks to official indifference to governor training. The Conservatives put much faith in governors but did not want to know the awkward extent of their training needs. And in spite of Labour's obvious unease about the competence of governors, it has done little more in practice to secure their proper induction or continuing support.

It has restored earmarked funds for governor training - but too late to save those parts of the governor-training network that have already withered away, and with it much of the mutual support that AGIT relied on.

Cold-shouldered by the National Governors Council - which itself has shown remarkably little interest in practical support for the governing bodies it purports to represent - the death of AGIT puts at risk an important reservoir of expertise and commitment to effective governance. AGIT was not perfect. The hand-to-mouth existence it was forced to lead ensured that. And some may wrongly argue that if it wasn't self-supporting it wasn't needed.

Governors may not realise what they have lost, but ministers and the Department for Education and Employment should do so. AGIT was probably the sort of organisation of which it could truly be said that if it did not exist, it would have to be invented.

If the conduct of schools and raising of standards are to remain the responsibility of lay governors, the Government will have to start taking their induction and support seriously. And some means for collecting and disseminating best practice for their training will now have to be reinvented.

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