It need not be quite such a headache

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Governing bodies can help to lighten the load on staff overwhelmed by paperwork, says Diana Penton

WORKLOAD, paperwork, bureaucracy, stress - these are all preoccupations of professional staff in schools, and therefore of governors. The impact on morale and risk of illness, absence or burnout is well recognised.

Governors often feel helpless when trying to find ways to mitigate the load, particularly on headteachers, who they can see are wearing themselves to a frazzle trying to fulfil their role adequately.

It is natural for heads sometimes to feel resentment that the governing body places an extra, and largely unproductive, burden on them and to think that it would be a neat solution to cut down on meetings or reporting or providing administrative support. Governors can only sympathise when they hear that their head has spent so many evenings at meetings in school.

But governors must not underplay the importance of their role and their right to the proper level of support. So time spent discussing how governing body business can be conducted most efficiently is not wasted and could lift some of the burden on both heads and governors.

* Is your headteacher really overdoing it? If so she needs to be reminded that sooner or later this will result in reduced productivity or even illness. The governing body could suggest: better delegation, perhaps to a willing deputy who would welcome the opportunity; strategies to set aside uninterrupted time; explicit "permission" to take time off in lieu of evening meetings; not attending every meeting; or buying in additional expertise, for example on monitoring finances.

* Meetings can be kept to a maximum of two hours, without sacrificing quality, by: timed agendas; well-prepared paperwork issued beforehand; avoiding duplication of discussion already held in committee; self-discipline by all about the length and content of contributions; no anecdotes or diversions; compromise on meeting times to suit the head in particular.

* Could the number of meetings be reduced? Once a term is not really enough for most governing bodies, and inevitably results in a long meeting. But five a year is a good compromise. Reducing the number of committees will reduce meetings. Functions can be combined, for example putting finance with premises under "resources". Many schools hold committee meetings one after another which means one outing instead of two.

* Could the paperwork be reduced or shared? The head's report is an essential tool for accounting to the governing body for management of the school, but could some of it be included in a report from the teacher governor? Is it clear what governors want in the report and when? Is a full written report once a term sufficient? Might the deputy head deputise occasionally?

* Aim at one side of A4. Try some judicious editing. Use a smaller font - it saves trees, photocopying, postage, tempers and time. Governing body policies need not include every operational detail - these can be set out in supporting documentation.

* Establish some ground rules for a visiting policy. Think hard about how much of the head's time is taken up by visitors.

* Does everyone take responsibility for keeping meetings focused and on the ball? Or do they natter in corners, spring surprise questions and demand too much detail? Does the chair share the workload with the vice-chair?

Careful thought about saving time and effort by all should lead to a clearer view of what the real purpose and priorities are for the governing body.

Diana Penton is a governor, clerks several governing bodies, and edits papers for the National Association of Governors and Managers. A four-year work planner can be downloaded from www.nagm.org.uk

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