Training gives governors the confidence to look deeper into their job, says tutor Nigel Gann
Looking back on her recent experience of training at Southampton University, Alice Smith, a Dorset governor, says: "Before going on this course, I was very accepting of the status quo, deferential to the head and other educationists, reactive not proactive, ignorant of deeper educational issues and lacking in confidence as a governor."
Our 300,000 or so school governors are responsible for somepound;20 billion worth of education spending. But how much time can they spend thinking long-term and strategically?
So much training is school- based, without looking at wider questions such as: Why do schools do things this way? Are there alternatives? What is the philosophy that underpins our decision-making? Can we make sure the governing body focuses on its strategic role, and doesn't become so mired in "business" that it is continually sidelined?
Two years ago, Dorset education department - particularly the section concerned with school improvement - decided it was vital for governors to be able to explore the historical, political and philosophical context in which their decisions were made.
The education department approached University of Southampton New College, which provides lifelong learning opportunities, and together they devised two 24-hour courses to be taught over one evening a week for two terms. Governors who wanted to gain higher education credits would have to do some written work, which was optional for those who didn't. Essay titles were offered, and most kept a log-book.
The two tutors, myself and Martin Corrick, are adult educators, governor trainers and have both been chairs of governing bodies.
The first 12 weeks dealt with education structures. Who "owns" schools? What goes on in them, and why? What are the different views of the curriculum, and what is its history? How can we know how well our schools are doing, and what do we mean by an effective school?
How should we be planning for developments in the next century?
The second block looked at the role of the governing body itself. What do we mean by "effective" governing bodies? Where is the power in our schools? How can governing bodies discharge their legal duties in an accountable way? Can a governing body make a school better? And if so, how?
Eighteen governors attended the summer and autumn terms of 1998. Everyone who completed one of the two courses was awarded a certificate.
The commitment required was staggering. How could these people - inevitably among the most dedicated governors already - find yet more time, not just to attend the course, but to do the background reading and the writing too? Even they would say they didn't know how they managed it.
Yet the pay-offs were huge. Governors from all kinds of educational background found their thinking reinvigorated. Ben Jones said: "I had previously been amateurish, well-intentioned - I've had to reinvent myself - to dare to be different, to take risks."
Confidence had risen with greater knowledge. "I have the confidence to question, and deeper, wider knowledge," added Mrs Smith. Both she and and Mr Jones returned to their schools refreshed.
Their colleague Bob White adds: "I am able to draw in more of the governors, encourage them to go more deeply and become more knowledgeable and involved. I am better at monitoring the effect that governing body decisions have made."
Most importantly, the course made governors aware of other possibilities for their own governing bodies. "A concentrated thinking session - where do we go? What do we want?" suggests Bob White. "Allow time to discuss broader issues and their implications for our schools," proposes Alice Smith.
The course was not linked in any way to "official approval" of individual governors by the local authority. Rather, it suggested that the learning would enrich governors' experience and contribution, by developing a deeper understanding of the English educational experience.
Nor was the programme developed as a half-baked introductory course for teachers. Its content is the distinct body of knowledge governors need - although it could be adapted to meet the needs of other non-educationists in schools including support staff, administrators and parents.
The courses will be offered again this year, and interest is already running high.
(Names have been changed).
Nigel Gann is an education consultant, author and governor educator. His book Improving School Governance was published by Falmer Press last year. Martin Corrick is a lecturer at University of Southampton New College and a former governor training coordinator. He has written widely on governing matters, and was a founder member of the National Governors' Council. Interested LEAs and governors can phone Martin Corrick on 01703 597409, or Nigel Gann on 01935 881100