Industry ethic goes to school

4th April 1997 at 01:00
When the governors of Princes Risborough school were appointing a new deputy head, Elizabeth Mason's business experience influenced the selection.

As the only member of the governing body working for a major company, she was able to give a view of the qualities industry looked for in people, and to ask candidates some searching questions about their approach to management.

Since becoming a governor of this small secondary school in Buckinghamshire, Elizabeth Mason has been involved in developing an advanced General National Vocational Qualification in business studies. She has also managed to get some equipment for the school through her contacts in industry.

A merchandise director of home shopping for the Burton Group, Elizabeth Mason is one of 40 senior managers who have just taken part in a year-long study of the role of business governors in schools.

Carried out by the charity Industry in Education (IIE) and the University of Luton, the study follows an earlier survey that highlighted the poor representation of the business community on school governing bodies.

The survey of 12 IIE member companies employing between them a total of 131,000 people, found that only one in 300 of these employees was a school governor. Less than a third of those who were governors thought other members of the governing body saw them as business representatives and only 8 per cent said they wanted to speak for the business community. Most had been elected as parent governors and even among those serving as co-opted governors nearly half said their jobs in industry were not the main reason they had been co-opted.

With under 15 per cent of the employee-governors surveyed describing themselves as senior managers, IIE concluded that many were too junior to bring a full range of business management experience and contacts into their schools.

"Such findings indicate the ad hoc interpretation and implementation of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 which recognised the need for, and right of, members of the business community to be included on school governing bodies," says Anne Punter, senior lecturer in the faculty of management at the University of Luton, who led the research. "The findings also indicate a lack of clarity concerning the possible priorities and roles appropriate for business governors."

Existing arrangements are not serving either education or industry as well as they could be, IIE concluded, and it has proposed that all schools should have at least two business governors, one of whom is not a parent governor. This need not increase the size of governing bodies since the number of governors in other categories could be reduced.

To make sure these governors have the credibility to speak for the business community, IIE would like to see companies nominating managers willing to serve on school governing bodies. But except in the case of sponsor governors of city technology colleges and certain other types of schools, the charity does not favour permanent links between individual companies and schools. Instead, when a governor's proposed two-year term of office came to an end, a new governor would be found from another company. A national register of potential volunteers would help schools find what IIE director Dick Whitcutt calls business governors of the "right type".

The pilot study in which Elizabeth Mason took part was designed to test how these proposals would work in practice. Volunteers from IIE member companies and other large organisations were matched to secondary schools that had governor vacancies.

They were co-opted in the usual way, and researchers then used questionnaires and focus group interviews with headteachers, chairmen of governors and the volunteers themselves to monitor the experiment.

The results of this research will be published later this year, but according to Dick Whitcutt, early indications are that the business governors have been able to make significant contributions to their schools. Most have decided to stay on now that the one-year study has ended.

As well as giving practical help with financial planning, marketing and a host of other activities, Mr Whitcutt says the volunteers have been able to ask the difficult "what if" questions that can prompt schools to review their existing practice.

"The biggest surprise for schools has been the extent to which these governors have been able to help them think through educational issues where it isn't actually educational knowledge and expertise that are necessary but sound, challenging thinking," he adds.

Business governors who spoke to The TES were more modest in their assessment of their own contributions. Mike Smith, area manager for the Midland Bank in Sheffield, believes he has brought a fresh perspective to the management issues facing Cockburn High School in Leeds. He has also been able to offer the school some of the business and management skills he has acquired in his 31 years with a major organisation.

But paying tribute to Cockburn's headteacher for turning around and restoring pride and morale in what had previously been a troubled school, he says: "They've taught me more than I've taught them, but I'm aware that in other schools it's a rather different story."

Charles Barrows, also stresses how much he has gained from being a school governor. Mr Barrows, a financial control manager with Norwich Union Life and Pensions, says serving as a governor at Wymondham College, a grant-maintained school in Norfolk, has given him a chance to see how an entire business, rather than one part of a business, is managed - and managed well.

So do well-managed schools really need governors from the business community? John Had-en, principal of Wym-ondham College, which is the largest state boarding school in the country, believes they do.

"My view is that we need people with expertise at senior management level in industry simply because they have another vision of management issues and it's important that schools should have a whole range of different visions of the way in which we can improve and develop," he says.

Mr Haden says schools need governors who can provide a personal view informed by their own commercial experience and at the same time represent the views of industry, especially in relation to the qualities employers look for in school-leavers.

But while strongly supporting business involvement in education, Mr Haden is less keen on IIE's proposal for a separate new category of business governors. He argues that this could easily descend into tokenism, with some schools forced to take anyone they could find, rather than business people with a genuine interest in education and a specific contribution to make.

Others also have doubts about the practicality of legislating for business governors. John Botten, chairman of the National Education Business Partnership Network, is sympathetic towards IIE's intention but says: "Unless you were going to pay people to serve as governors I don't see how you could run a system like that. Perhaps there is scope for encouraging those schools which have not got business governors to try harder because in the end it depends on them."

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