Learn to play with a full deck

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Get creative with your committees, says David Marriott, or they may become a problem rather than a solution.

Governors should play cards. I have in mind a game where each card represents a different potential component of an alternative management structure.

Starting with the compulsory elements - full governing body and statutory committees (pupil discipline; staff discipline; appeals and, in voluntary-aided schools, admissions) - the players should then consider their options, as creatively as possible.

Many governors are surprised to learn that other committees are not compulsory. As management guru Charles Handy put it, committees are often better at recognising problems than solving them. The chances of them being ineffective are very high.

Committees are set up to save time. But often their report to the governing body triggers an identical debate to the one that took place at the committee, thus doubling the time spent on the issue. If the governing body will not delegate some key decision-making powers to its committees, they are unlikely to be much use.

It is difficult to function without a finance committee but, beyond that, all sorts of committees could be established to deal with premises, personnel and curriculum. How, though, do we avoid the problem that most decisions are dependent on money, and so need to be referred back to the finance committee?

Other cards offer various possibilities, such as task groups and associate members. Task groups are set up with a specific brief, timescale and selected membership. Task completed, it disbands. Members of the task group get a sense of ownership through using their talents appropriately and the board benefits by getting through its business more efficiently, and speedily.

Associate members are people who join a committee or task group rather than the full governing body. It is a good way to harness additional talent and experience which would otherwise be missed because individuals do not have the time or inclination to be governors proper.

Then there are specialist governors, responsible for special needs, literacy, numeracy and so on. Their roles and contributions to managing the board's workload need to be reviewed. What can be delegated to them, if anything? How does their work square with, say, the curriculum committee? Could their roles be developed further?

Working on the possibilities by arranging cards in different patterns is fun and encourages full participation and creative ideas. Once agreement has been reached on the preferred option, it is a relatively straightforward task to write it up formally. The investment of time should pay dividends by reducing the frustration that comes from operating an outmoded organisational structure.

Late summer or early autumn terms are good times to consider putting together a new "scheme of delegation" to reflect changing priorities.

Some governors have never heard of such a thing, though. It is essentially a written agreement spelling out who does what. At the first level, it differentiates between the respective responsibilities of the head and the full governing body. The Department for Education and Skills' decision planning matrix is useful (see www.dfes.gov.uk). Beyond that, the delegation scheme encapsulates the terms of reference of those who underpin the work of the board. A simple organisation chart can be very useful, too.

Once written, it is not set in stone and if bits don't work, change them. At the very least, the scheme should be reviewed annually. Along the way, planning the sequence of meetings for the year ahead is bound to arise.

If the work of task groups or committees is to inform the meetings of the full governing body, then we need to programme them appropriately. We could even think about a longer-term programme, using the National Association of Governors and Managers' excellent four-year planner (see www.nagm.org.uk).

If at the end of the card game you finish up with the same structure you had before, so be it. But don't expect it to work forever.

David Marriott is head of governor support at Wiltshire County Council and the author of "The Effective School Governor" (Network Educational Press, tel 01785 225515)

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