Are school governors ungovernable?" ask Cherie Booth QC and Jessica Hill (TES2, page 20). Do local authorities need greater powers to check those of maverick governing bodies, as they suggest? Or have they missed the point: that governor discretion was deliberately increased to protect the diverse interests of individual schools from those local education authorities whose own performance and accountability is questioned?
There is no shortage of support for the Hill and Booth proposition. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has expressed similar concerns and aspirations, arguing for a level of intervention for local authorities short of the nuclear option of withdrawing delegated powers. And yet, given that there are more than 20,000 amateur governing bodies each with hair-raising levels of responsibility for safety, welfare and probity, remarkably few have careered disastrously out of control.
No doubt LEAs and headteachers could point to many disputes which escape the headlines. But then most governors and their associations cite cases where authorities and heads have ignored governors' statutory responsibilities or failed to provide lay governors with the professional and legal advice to which they are entitled.
Of greater concern than overactive governing bodies ought to be the underactive ones. Office for Standards in Education reports are increasingly acerbic about their performance. "In a small but worrying proportion of schools governors have been unprepared to deal with serious weaknesses, particularly where the leadership shown by the headteacher or the teaching competence of a member of staff is poor," the chief inspector said in his last annual report. He also recognised that governor training is "haphazard", 10 years after it was made a statutory responsibility of local authorities.
That suggests not so much that governing bodies flout the sound advice of local authorities as that it is not being given for the main tasks in which governors need help: defining the respective roles of heads and governors; securing the quality of teaching and learning; overseeing sound development and spending plans, staffing; pay and monitoring progress.
How and by whom should governing bodies be supported? That depends to some extent upon the future role envisaged for local authorities. By all accounts, the forthcoming education White Paper seeks to extend school autonomy. But how will the Government ensure that more self-governing schools will seek advice when they need it, with no one to prompt them?
As things stand, authorities already have significant but underused powers to advise, monitor and intervene in failing and struggling schools. It is hard to see how giving authorities more would provide school managements with any better support. If anything, it would reduce the LEA's incentive to do so, negate self-managing responsibilities and blur the lines of public accountability.
But the question remains whether the Government expects too much of voluntary, unpaid governors without compulsory training or bespoke professional advisers such as lay magistrates have. Ten years after governing bodies were established in their existing form, during which time they have been given far more sweeping powers than was originally envisaged, it is time for this Government - or the next - to instigate a full review of what it is reasonable to expect of governors, and how they can be helped to meet those expectations.