Just what the doctor ordered;Briefing;Govenors

15th January 1999 at 00:00
In the Wirral it was decided the best people to ask about training governors were governors themselves. Carolyn O'Grady reports

A reluctance to empower governors to be responsible for their own training," is acknowledged by Michael Clarke, until recently Wirral educational department's general inspector.

Now, however, things have changed and the local authority no longer dominates the scene.

The impetus for a different approach came from Dr John Gibbings, a semi retired former manager who has worked in the RAF and in industry, and was a reader at Liverpool University.

Dr Gibbings, who has been a governor at independent, secondary and primary schools for more than 40 years, approached the authority with a course which would mainly consist of "input from governors which they have built up at the coalface".

The course aims to offer the experienced governor a chance to talk and learn from fellow governors. The divided responsibility for schools is a unique management set-up, which forces teamwork, Dr Gibbings says.

"Governors need the input of experienced governors, preferably those who have worked in industry, and have some management expertise. But whatever they have learned in industry or business has to be tailored to this unique situation."

The course which has been repeated three times since it emerged in 199596 consists of six or seven evening seminars held at monthly intervals, lasting two-and-a-quarter hours each. Only governors who have done the job for several years attend - usually around 24. It is led by four experienced governors who also determine the basic structure.

The course covers: principles and responsibilities; management structure; committee structure, policy documents, making appointments; financial management; and school assessment and marketing (including target setting).

"Flexibility within a structure," is how course-leader Valerie Rebaudo describes the course. "We want to find out what they need to know, rather than impose anything."

Before each seminar comprehensive and detailed background notes, written by John Gibbings, are sent to participants. After each session they are asked to comment on the last topic and suggest what they want to discuss at the next.

At each session, after an introductory talk, participants break up into groups to discuss topics relevant to their suggestions. For example, they may discuss whether policies are the skeleton of an efficient school and as such should have the widest possible ownership. And to achieve this, should governors be consulted about the policy, and when?

Governors then compare what they consider should happen with what actually does happen in their own schools. Finally, groups report back to the whole seminar.

Empowerment of governors is a major objective but the need for partnership and tact is emphasised. "Very often governors go back from local authority training courses, where they have been told that partnership is the thing, to find that heads cling to power", says Valerie Rebaudo. "The aim is to develop governors' confidence so that they know they are entitled to ask for the information they need to do the job.

"Many governors are intimidated, and they can be isolated. They often don't know, for example, that they can call a secret ballot," says Valerie Rebaudo Confidentiality is built into the course from the start. With no local authority officials on site, governors can talk freely about their own schools.

"During the first four sessions nobody would say 'boo' to a goose," says Julie Delaney, a governor at a Wirral infants' school. "But from about the third seminar it really worked. Among the governors there was a wealth of experience and background to draw on. You felt at ease and were able to talk in an informal way."

"We learned how others handled things and got different ideas," said Dr Patricia Hughes, a governor at a Wirral infants and junior school.

Both found the background notes - some 53,000 words in all - one of the most useful aspects of the course, and both refer to it regularly.

"Everything was given to you. I have a great big folder which I now carry around," says Patricia Hughes.

Notes on financial matters are particularly detailed. Carefully explaining how financial analyses are made, the notes include data and equations on school income and teachers' salaries. During the course, teachers are encouraged to work through these equations.

It is these kind of specifics which, Gibbings argues, are missing from most books and training course for governors. "I have yet to find a single illustrative example in all the writings on governors' policy documents. I supply sample policy documents and let them pull them to pieces if they want."

The course gave her the confidence to challenge accepted practice, says Patricia Hughes. "I feel much better informed," says Julie Delaney. "Now I can understand the legalities and relate policies to the needs of the children."

The course is now receiving applicants from outside Wirral, including from Liverpool, London and North Wales and eventually the organisers hope to help set up a framework in other authorities.

Further information is available from The Wirral department of education, tel: 0151 666 2121.

28 Briefing Governors TESJjanuary 15 1999 Tried and tested: governors need the imput of people experienced in the role, who may have worked in industry, says Dr John Gibbings chris thomond 'Governors go back from local authority training courses, where they have been told that partnership is the thing, to find that heads cling to power'

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