Governors need to have a life too

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Governing bodies need their own workload agreement before they all resign from stress, argues David Sassoon.

Let me share with you the governor's dilemma. Over the past 17 years, ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act, the responsibilities piled on governors have increased, incrementally on some occasions and astronomically on others.

With them have come new powers. This is not a bad thing, since local people, whom governors represent, know best what is right for the school and can make swift decisions with minimal bureaucracy.

But as these responsibilities multiply, some of our 350,000 school governors, the biggest group of volunteers in the country, are on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

The principle of the workforce reforms - to give teachers a reasonable work-life balance - has been warmly welcomed by most, whatever the objections of the National Association of Head Teachers (that the Government is not properly funding the agreement) and the National Union of Teachers (that classroom assistants will be able to take classes, albeit under close supervision).

Governors have been no exception, even though the Government sidelined them when collecting signatures for the agreement and establishing the Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group.

With the help of their headteachers, governors are ensuring that the final part of this agreement comes to fruition, providing teachers with 10 per cent non-contact time (particularly at primary and nursery level) and planning for external examinations and test invigilation to be carried out by support staff. These reforms are part of the Government's "new relationship with schools", which also includes:

* Creating a team of school improvement partners (SIP) for headteachers, trained and appointed by local education authorities. The SIP will aim to ensure that the head has a "single conversation" mapping out the school's vision, priorities, targets and suggestions to promote effective and sustainable improvement.

The partners' tasks include asking questions; suggesting sources of evidence; challenging interpretations of the school's evidence; discussing the accuracy of the head's improvement priorities; and acting as the critical reader of the school's self-evaluation form.

* Establishing a new model of inspections, which will happen with minimal notice once every three years. Each inspection will last no more than two days and will be led, most often, by school inspectors, based on the school's self-evaluation, and result in a report within eight working days.

This will contain no more than 2,000 words for a secondary school and 1,500 words for a primary one.

Much like motherhood and apple pie, all this is good stuff. Except, that is, for two issues that appear to be antithetical to each other: is too much being expected of governors? What about a work-life balance for them? And where do governors feature in the SIP scheme of things?

Mona Shah, vice-chair of governors of Lyon Park infant school in Alperton, Brent, says of the increasing workload being piled upon her: "I can't give the best of me after a full day's work.I don't have these responsibilities in the job for which I am paid."

She should know, being a high-powered trouble-shooter in her own professional field.

The Government is taking mean advantage of governors' goodwill. They have to attend meetings of the governing body and its committees, keep up-to-date with changes in legislation through extensive reading and training, engage in the performance management of the head, set school-wide targets for pupils, interview for staff - especially when it comes to recruiting members of the senior management team (SMT) - and be held to account by an inspection regime that expects it to:

* set a clear direction for the school;

* know its strengths and weaknesses;

* offer members of the senior management team challenge and support; and

* ensure that they carry out their legal responsibilities.

The Government is adding to governors' workload by stealth. Take, for instance, the requirement that the governing body carries out an intensive self-review at least once a year to meet the new inspection requirements (even though in reality heads usually do this job).

Another example of governors' growing responsibilities is the recent change whereby Cambridge Education Associates' threshold assessors were removed from the job of validating heads' decisions on teachers crossing the pay rate threshold.Who does the work now, especially when teachers appeal? Yes, the governors.

While governors' workload increases, the Government, perhaps inadvertently, undermines them by removing their powers. The SIP will be duplicating the work of governors, who cannot overnight cease to be critical friends of the school.

Two or three of them carry out the performance review of their head once annually. So the head will need to have at least two conversations, a self-defeating exercise. Unless, of course, it legislates for the SIP to take the role of advising the governors about the head's performance.

Pilots on the new relationship with schools have been undertaken in Hampshire, Liverpool, Redbridge, West Sussex and Manchester.

I hope that a proper evaluation of these trials is disseminated as widely as possible before any further initiatives are taken. If not, schools could see an exodus of governors.

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