The importance of being balanced...

1st September 2001 at 01:00

Jane Phillips on ensuring everyone has a voice on a well-adjusted board

Wherever we look, balance is valued. We hear of the importance of work-life balance or eating a balanced diet. We speak of the balance of power between political parties. And we all know the downside of imbalance; for the individual or for the nation it can lead to unhealthy outcomes.

Balance is also important within governing bodies. Over-representation by any group can be unhealthy. Horror stories abound about local authorities with an iron grip on their governing bodies, or schools where staff representatives block progress. There are tales of "parent power" causing apoplexy among staff.

The composition of governing bodies includes four main interest groups; consumers (parents), producers (employees at the school), employers (LEA representatives) and the community (local, business or church). Of these groups, it is the consumers and producers who will have the greater personal interest. The purpose of assembling different stakeholders to form a decision-making body is to bring together diverse perspectives. The voices of all stakeholders need equal volume. Where a sensible balance is achieved, no one group has undue influence. Where one interest group predominates, decision-making can become skewed.

How does one interest group gain precedence, what problems can this cause and how can we guard against this? A governing body may have one or more vacancies which it knows could be difficult to fill. It approaches or is approached by those sections of the community with an interest in the school. And very quickly an interest group can become dominant. Although the motives of most governors are pure, there are people whose reasons for joining a governing body are not entirely positive. People with their own agenda can have a negative effect, diverting the governing body from its true purpose - the provision of the best possible education for all the pupils in its care.

An over-abundance of either parents or staff can cause difficulties. The pool of governors who can be seen to be objective in, for instance, a pupil exclusion case is decreased if most governors have a personal interest as a producer or consumer at the school. Pay decisions and headteacher appraisal are out of bounds for governors who are school employees and must be dealt with very sensitively by parent governors. In all decision-making, it is more difficult, though not impossible, to be objective if you have a vested interest in the outcome. Conversely, it is those with that additional interest who are more likely to put in the time and effort required to fulfil the onerous duties that governors now carry.

So, how can you ensure that over-representation by an interest group does not cause problems?

You can: * head-hunt beyond the immediate community and even when you don't have a vacancy keep your eyes and ears open for likely candidates.

* look to your LEA or the School Governors' One Stop Shop for potential governors.

* revisit and review your purpose so there is a shared understanding by all interest groups.

* discuss and produce a good practice guide for working together.

These are all "sticking plaster" solutions. The overriding reason for imbalance is the shortage of good candidates from outside the immediate school community. In an ideal world these people would be beating a path to our door. Governorship would have to be made far more attractive for that to be the case and that lies within the remit of government - not us.

Jane Phillips is a governor of a primary and chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers

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