Keep the ties that bind

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Jane Martin says it is important for governors to cling to their accountability

SINCE their responsibilities increased, governors could be forgiven for thinking that their role should carry a government health warning. Headteachers cite governing bodies for much of the bureaucratic burden of running schools, governors complain that increased responsibilities are the last straw for volunteers - who are then in danger of getting hammered by Office for Standards in Education inspectors for not doing the job properly.

My worry, shared by many others, is that the Government is watching and listening and will, sooner or later, decide that this school governance business is not really worth the candle. New Labour could blame their predecessors for a nice experiment that just didn't work, scale down governor responsibilities, and put governors into a strait-jacket so they couldn't do any harm to themselves or others.

Such a conclusion would be wrong because it is based on two mistaken premises. One, that schools can be run as "private" institutions by professionals accountable to the central state. Two, that the school governing body is just an institutional mechanism concerned with the running of the "autonomous" school.

Forget about performance management for a moment. Stop worrying about the budget. Pretend exclusions are not a problem. Think for a moment about the fundamentals of our system of school governance and then ask yourself whether these are worth hanging on to - and if so what should be done.

The state education system is a public service. Education is a public good. It should therefore be managed for the public, in consultation with the public, and should be accountable to the public. This is nothing new. The key difference since 1980, however, is that rather than "the public" being represented in the governance of education through their elected politicians or councillors, they are also represented at school level through elected or appointed stakeholder groups who reflect local conditions, interests and concerns. The school governing body, which includes teacher and staff governors, is the forum via which the headteacher and staff formally have an opportunity to engage with the public they serve. The only notable absentees at present are student representatives.

The best schools, the literature suggests, are reflective schools. Governing body discussions should be important moments of reflection on what the school is doing and why. Not a bureaucratic burden. Reaching a shared way forward with the governing body reinforces and enhances the authority and legitimacy of the school with the public. This is public accountability. Our system of school governance should fulfil that crucial function. Enhancing the dialogue of accountability between the headteacher and the governing body, and the governing body and its constituents, shoul be the main concern.

We are getting there. The clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the governing body, most recently via new Department for Education and Employment guidance on headteachers' and governors' roles (see TES, July 7), gives boards the tools by which they can "steer at a distance". Responsibilities which the governing body cannot delegate, such as agreeing the annual budget, setting school improvement targets, ensuring a performance management policy is in place, and reviewing the performance of the head, are the strategic levers which will not leave accountability to chance.

Nevertheless, it should not be lost that, in representing the public, governors are volunteers. They are part of the local politics of education. Our system of school governance gives local people a voice in the development and delivery of education in their community - it is an exercise in citizenship, not least for parents. So as well as being a key institutional mechanism for ensuring public accountability in our schools, the school governing body should be recognised as performing an important function as a forum through which local people participate in decisions shaping their lives.

This is the bedrock of the new politics which runs through the modernisation agenda of local and central government and should be supported. Governors should not be paid and turned into quasi-professionals. Governing bodies should not be characterised by the skills and expertise required to manage a school. Effective governors are active citizens which central and local government should recognise, celebrate and support. Professionals will need to acknowledge that decision-making could take longer and may require more time, energy and support. This is beginning to happen, but more needs to be done otherwise the weight of expectation will cause the edifice to collapse.

The terms of the debate around the future of school governance should now be shifted to how volunteer citizens can be properly supported in order to participate fully and effectively - and thus ensure public accountability. My own list starts with allowances paid to employers who release staff as governors; mandatory governor expenses; a compulsory minimum entitlement to induction training, and pump-priming funds for a local clerking and information service in every education authority. It would include holding more governors' meetings during the working day and focusing the business on the key strategic levers of targets, performance and resources. Volunteer governors need less paperwork and succinct, jargon-free information. Your list might be different - or longer. But at least we should start the debate.

Jane Martin is contributing to a two-year study of governors as volunteer citizens, carried out by Birmingham University and sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council

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