Leave power where it is

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Governors should stand their ground and resist calls for reform says Ian Frost. I share Jane Abramsons frustrations (TES October 11) at the Government's increasingly dictatorial approach, while failing to fund the education service appropriately. I don't, however, feel that the alternatives to school governors are necessarily that much better, and I still have a strong personal belief that governors can and do make a difference.

Real school governors have struggled to keep up with the ideal, especially in some metropolitan authorities. Governing bodies have recruitment problems and the technical knowledge required to meet certain responsibilities is clearly beyond the reach of many. The requirement to review the performance of heads and deputies must be a particular area of concern to every governing body, and exclusions are always stressful.

The avalanche of bureaucracy is also a very real difficulty. I recently had to wrestle with the trivia that governors have to include in the annual report to parents. Accountability has become constipated by an absurd insistence on reporting on any and every issue of political moment, no matter how insignificant.

I can still remember, however, the real feeling of achievement when local management of schools was first introduced, and schools and governors were able to explore their powers together, and agree policies and resource allocations that were appropriate to the school, rather than having them imposed arbitarily by the education authority. Governors still have that opportunity, although clearly it is much reduced by recent budget problems.

People who advocate a reduction in governors' powers have to identify who would take over those responsibilities, and how such a change would increase the effectiveness of schools. I would rather that decisions, even hard decisions, were taken by governors with direct involvement in, knowledge of and a commitment to the school, rather than faceless council administrators.

As Joan Sallis rightly points out, schools have gained enormous power in the last few years. Such power clearly brings a requirement for accountability. If governors' powers are reduced then either schools' delegated powers are reduced, which I am sure most would regard as a retrograde step, or others will get extra powers to maintain the same level of accountabililty.

That four out of five heads want to see the duties of governors more clearly defined does not surprise me. There are grey areas on the fringes of the responsibilities of both, and it is clear that there have been cases of governors who have failed to understand the different management role that heads and governors have. Equally there have been examples of governors having to stand their ground in the face of pressure from head, staff or education authority.

Against a background where governors have legally exercised their powers and are fully within their rights, it is clear that heads' call for clearer definition of governors' duties is simply seeking more freedom of action and less accountability for themselves. This cannot be in the best interests of schools.

I would also be less than happy about a restoration of local authority powers. A discussion document produced by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities two years ago made the Department for Education and Employment seem almost benevolent in contrast. Authorities no longer have the staff to manage schools, and any increase in their responsibilities can lead only to a reduction in the budget share delegated to schools as authorities recruited extra staff.

I do not therefore agree with the calls for sweeping reform. Certainly, I accept a need to remind governors of best practice, and feel that a re-emphasis of the importance of governors' primary objective, that of increasing effectiveness and achievement, is long overdue, and would be valuable in refocussing governors' attention.

If this were coupled with a restoration of the levels of funding for governor training and development to those of three years ago, and a return to the previous practice of having these funds as a separate Grants for Education Support and Training category rather than being muddled within funds for staff and curriculum development, then governors would have a clear opportunity of reminding everyone about their real value.

Despite all the frustrations, I still feel that governors make a difference. Increasing effectiveness and achievement is not easy, and it certainly seems to take a long time to change things when compared with the commercial world, but I take satisfaction from the progress made in recent years in all sorts of small and not so small ways. That's why I shall continue to be a school governor.

Ian Frost is a governor in Manchester

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