* In some areas up to a third of governor places are vacant * Governors were charged with improving performance after the 1988
Education Reform Act
* Legislation introduced last year means governing bodies can number from nine to 20 and can include any number of associate members
* In London, 47 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities, but only 23 per cent of governors
* A headteacher can choose whether or not to become a governor. In Scotland, which has a system of boards, heads attend meetings but not as a board member
* The LEA can suspend the budget delegated to governors and take back staffing and finance powers. In rare cases, it can sack the governing body and replace it with an interim executive board
There are more than 370,000 school governors in the UK, the biggest volunteer workforce in the land. No school can run without them. But as the demand grows for them to become more professional, so too does their workload. Because they are legally responsible for the quality of education at their schools, they have to master education jargon and swot up on government initiatives. Not surprisingly, many would-be volunteers find the prospect too daunting; in some areas up to a third of governor places are vacant. Recruitment is only part of the problem. Using governors effectively takes time and effort - and some creative thinking. But research shows that a positive partnership between a school and its governors is well worth the hard work.
A brief history
When Winchester College was founded more than 600 years ago, so was the concept of governors. Independent trustees scrutinised everything from the teaching to the quality of the food. In 1870 the first Education Act provided for every school to have a body of local people to represent public interests, and the 1944 act increased the power of governors. But until the 1980s, governors had a limited role and there was little parent or teacher involvement.
Things changed with the 1986 Education Act. Governing bodies became a more active collaboration between representatives of the local education authority, parents and teachers and co-opted representatives of the community. When local management of schools was introduced after the 1988 Education Reform Act, governors became charged with improving performance.
Parent representation was increased in 1998, and governors' responsibility for school standards reinforced.
In Scotland, the current system of school boards became law in 1988.
Consisting of elected parents, teachers and representatives of the local community, the boards have legal rights, including the right to receive reports from the headteacher and to veto proposals for spending on classroom resources. More recently, the boards' role in promoting contact with the community has been extended to give them responsibility for raising standards of education.
What do governors do?
They are responsible for policy-making in their schools. They have a duty to write behaviour guidelines, set up home-school agreements, implement complaints procedures and set targets for performance. They also play an important role in considering exclusion cases and administering performance management pay for teachers. The governing body is the agency through which the school is accountable to the local education authority for use of public money, the character of the curriculum and the organisation of staff. "But it's not just about reading ghastly papers," says Felicity Taylor, director of Information for School and College Governors (ISCG), a non-profit organisation set up to provide advice and information. "It's about talking, listening and building trust. We're responsible for extending the school communities locally."
In Scotland, boards must receive information and statements about school policies, but they have less of a role in forming them, and some grant-aided Scottish schools are run by boards of managers who get money direct from central government. In independent schools, too, the governors' role is slightly different; they tend to leave education matters to the head and concentrate on business issues, such as setting fees.
In annual surveys carried out since 1999 by the National Association of Governors and Managers (NAGM) and The TES, governors say their responsibilities and workload are too onerous for part-time volunteers.
This is particularly true of overworked chairs. "The chair needs to know all the facts," says Stephen Adamson, acting chair of NAGM, "including knowing that they're acting legally. Meetings must be crisply run. And they need to keep people sane." Many professionals suggest payment may become necessary. "There should be some sort of allowance for the chair at least," suggests Kate Griffin, head of Greenford high school, in the London borough of Ealing, and past president of the Secondary Heads Association. "We expect such a high level of responsibility."
The make-up of governing bodies in England and Wales is changing. But not everyone believes it's for the best. A regulation introduced in March last year gave governing bodies three years to reconstitute. This is taking time and energy that many governors would rather spend on more pressing matters.
Under the new regulations, governors' duties will be unchanged but the size of the body and the make-up of its members will become more flexible. The new governing bodies can be from nine to 20 strong, and can include any number of associate members with particular skills or interests - representing the community, for example. Although in theory schools should benefit from the increase in flexibility, many report making few changes.
Other moves are aimed at speeding up decision-making and reducing workloads. Since September last year, most functions can be delegated to committees rather than requiring a full meeting, and it has become possible to hold joint meetings or form committees with governors from other schools.
Teacher governors and governor teachers
One thing that won't change under the new rules is the important role of teacher governors. Elected by their colleagues, they have to balance their membership of the governing team with their position as an employee of the school - and it can be tricky. When the scrutiny is on teaching standards, other governors may be on the lookout for favouritism towards colleagues.
Back in the staffroom, other teachers may be equally wary of what they see as insider information. Keeping the lines of communication open without breaching the confidentiality of governors' meetings can be awkward.
Dedicating a noticeboard can help. This way, all staff can see clearly who is representing them, and notes or information can be displayed. Raising appropriate matters at staff meetings should also allow the teacher governor to canvass views.
A headteacher can choose whether to become a governor, except in Scotland, where heads attend board meetings but not as a member. Most heads in England and Wales prefer to be members, though some keep their independence and view themselves as the governors' "chief executive". Choosing not to become a governor means losing a vote, however, on issues such as staff appointment.
How do we get good governors?
Recruitment can be a problem. The image of governing bodies as predominantly middle-class, middle-aged and white is fairly accurate. There have been efforts to change this, but progress is slow. The School Governors' One-Stop Shop (see resources) was established to encourage all kinds of people to become governors, but it estimates that 10 per cent of board places are vacant at any one time, rising to 30 per cent in some areas - even though major companies, including HSBC and Boots, encourage staff to become governors by giving them extra days of paid leave. Research in 2002 by the Education Network found that the hardest places to fill were co-opted governors (around 19 per cent vacancy rate), while the easiest were teacher governors (6 per cent of places vacant).
Having empty chairs at the board table is more than just a burden for those left making decisions; it can also cause practical problems. Latest regulations demand that a governors' meeting must have an attendance of 50 per cent, plus one, to be quorate. This can make it difficult to get through business. "The figure includes any vacancies," explains Kate Griffin. "When you struggle to recruit governors it can be hard to get a quorum."
Recruitment is difficult in urban and disadvantaged areas, and in cities such as London that have mobile populations. Attracting governors from ethnic minorities is also difficult; in London, for example, 47 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities, but only 23 per cent of governors.
"People think they need to know lots about education, or have lots of spare time," says Steve Acklam, chief executive of School Governors' One-Stop Shop. "But they don't. We have worked with more than 4,000 volunteers in 88 LEAs, and what we try to get across is that anyone can be a governor."
One way to attract new governors may be to emphasise the rewards rather than the responsibilities. "It's good personal development," says Mr Acklam. "You get access to training and experience of a live board situation. And an enormous sense of satisfaction."
What are the strengths of the system?
The governing body can be an invaluable support to staff. "They bring useful skills, but also the desire to make a difference, to help children do better," says Mr Acklam. "Governors provide vast funds of goodwill." As outsiders, governors bring their own perspectives and can sometimes see alternatives that have been missed. They can offer "protection" to senior managers by taking on some of the responsibilities, worries and criticisms.
Or they can be the "critical friend", helping to clarify issues by asking probing questions or demanding more detailed information. When the governing body works well, it does not simply react to issues in school or ideas raised by the head, but looks to the future. Peter Earley of London University's Institute of Education, says the British system is respected around the world. "Some good work is happening in places such as South Africa, trying to get students more involved, but most systems look to ours as a model," he says.
Making the relationships work
Working effectively with governors demands planning and commitment. Using them to tackle day-to-day management issues or to rubber-stamp decisions can save time but can alienate the group and waste the resource. Governors are most effective in schools where senior management has planned for collaborative policy-making. Governors are included in staff meetings, and teachers attend governors' committees and working groups. Information should be prepared well in advance of all meetings - including full governing body meetings - with a report by the head. The best way to work with governors is to look forward rather than back; governors are not an afterthought but an integral part of the management process.
"It's about respecting everyone's contribution," says the ISCG's Felicity Taylor. "So many heads just tolerate their governors without actually valuing or using them, and so many governors see the head as a whipping boy or girl without understanding all the pressures. You have to work hard at balancing the hyper-critical and the subservient. You have to learn to trust other people."
Most experts agree that the key relationship is between the chair of governors and the head. "Getting this right is very hard," says David Marriott, head of governor support for Wiltshire and author of The Effective School Governor (see resources). "Sometimes there's just a lack of chemistry and it doesn't work. Or sometimes it works too well and it's not strategic enough."
Governors also need interaction with pupils as well as staff if they are to understand the school. In some schools, individual governors are linked to particular classes or departments, which they visit regularly, getting to know the teachers and understand pupil learning. Others invite governors on "pupil tracking" exercises, where they follow one child throughout the school day (see case study). And governors can always try to persuade pupils to sit on their committees. Those who have done so report that it's not only a good learning opportunity for the child, but by far the best way for the governors to get to know the pupils and hear their concerns.
What about outside help?
There are plenty of resources for governor training and support. Most LEAs run comprehensive development programmes; Ofsted rates LEA support for governors as satisfactory or better in 94 per cent of cases. And, as part of the National Strategy for Governor Support and Training launched in 1999, the Department for Education and Skills provides specialist training for new governors, although research by the Educational Network suggests that only around 60 per cent of new governors take up the offer. Courses for clerks of governors have just been launched, and those for chairs of governors and heads are under development. GovernorLine, a free independent telephone advice line, is manned by experienced governors backed up by a legal team (see resources).
Many governors also belong to a specialist organisation; the NAGM, for example, publishes a series of detailed advice papers, as well as "smartcards", compact resources that address key issues and outline legal obligations. "The quality of governor training is increasing all the time," says Mr Marriott. "And so is the quality of governors. Now that governors are included in Ofsted inspections there's a real incentive to get things right."
But, as he points out, heads, too, might like to brush up on their skills.
"Too many have an insufficient understanding of the governors' role. Some are so focused on their own team of managers that there's little joined-up thinking in running the school." Leadership training courses often take account of the need for specialist sessions; the Secondary Heads Association, for example, runs a "working with governors" course, and the National Association of Head Teachers also offers training on issues such as financial reporting to governors.
Studies into improving schools have all shown that the benefits of a good governing body outweigh any extra work for staff. Peter Earley's research at the Institute of Education has found that heads value the extra support from their governors, professionally and personally. They feel less isolated and, because they are having to communicate, analyse and explain effectively, they become better managers. Governors help consolidate links with parents and the community and work with staff to provide clear direction for the school. "All research shows," says Mr Earley, "that where governing bodies are working well, a school is much more likely to be successful."
When it all goes belly up
Inevitably, things can go wrong, often through a simple clash of personalities. A long-term disagreement can be damaging for a school, so it's worth taking action quickly. "It's important to get outside, independent advice as soon as possible," says Kate Griffin. "Somebody fresh to the position can act as go-between to help sort out a problem and clarify everyone's responsibilities." The LEA can offer support, as can the specialist governors' organisations, and SHA field officers.
If an individual governor is a problem, changes can be made. Since September last year, governing bodies have had the power to suspend an individual member for up to six months in a limited range of circumstances; for example, if the person has brought the school into disrepute or breached confidentiality. But because governors take collective decisions, they have collective responsibility; individual governors are usually protected from any personal liability provided they have acted honestly and legally.
Where there's a problem with the governing body as a whole, the situation is more serious and requires LEA intervention. It can suspend the budget delegated to governors and take back staffing and finance powers. And in rare cases it can sack the governing body and replace it with an interim executive board. This only happens if a school is in extreme difficulties and the governing body is deemed incapable of turning it round. The LEA has to get special permission from the Education Secretary to take such a radical step; since the legislation making it possible was passed in 2002, only five governing bodies have been replaced.
As with all relationships, problems must be tackled promptly and calmly.
"It's critical for the school that peace is made," says Peter Earley.
"Counselling is always available, but it is best to act appropriately in the first place and not get to that stage."
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Many of the governor organisations, as well as LEAs and the DfES, publish advice. www.governornet.co.uk is a good starting point for advice and guides to the law.
* Basics for School Governors, by Joan Sallis (Network Educational Press, pound;6.50).
* Improving Schools and Governing Bodies, by Michael Creese and Peter Earley (Routledge Falmer, pound;24.99).
* The Effective School Governor, by Joan Dean (Routledge Falmer, pound;22.50).
* The Effective School Governor, by David Marriott (Network Education Press, pound;15.95).
* The School Governors' Handbook, by Ted Wragg and JA Partington (Routledge Falmer, pound;24.99).
* School Governors One Stop Shop (www.schoolgovernors-oss.co.uk). Tel: 0870 241 3883. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Information for School and College Governors (www.governors.fsnet.co.uk) publishes support material and offers advice. Tel: 0207 229 0200. ISCG also runs GovernorLine (www.governorline.info) offering independent telephone advice for serving governors. Tel: 0800 0722 181.
* National Association of Governors and Managers (www.nagm.org.uk). Tel: 0121 643 5787.
* Teach and Learn (www.teachand learn.net), a new CPD subscription service from the BBC and Open University, includes a section for governors.
* National Governors' Council (www.ngc.org.uk). Tel: 0121 616 5104.
* The Secondary Heads Association (www.sha.org.uk. Tel: 0116 299 1122) and the National Association of Head Teachers (www.naht.org.uk. Tel: 01444 472475) can provide headteachers with advice on working with governors.