Let go to save your school
The inspectors were marvellously understated. Washwood Heath comprehensive in Birmingham was a failing school because its governors did not provide "a clear direction ... or work together in a cohesive way".
Behind those bland phrases lay a tale of factions, internecine conflict and allegations of racism so disruptive that there had been a succession of votes of no confidence by teachers, and the head and half the staff had quit in a single year.
The flashpoint came in concerns by some community governors of this largely Muslim school about religious worship, behaviour, and school standards - some of which were supported by the Office for Standards in Education in 2002.
But it was clear that leadership had broken down to such an extent there was only one solution: call in the "super-governors". Or to give them their correct title, an interim executive board.
"It was something that came out of the blue," says Tim Brighouse, who was then Birmingham's chief education officer, of the 2002 Education Act that created IEBs. "We were in all sorts of inextricable difficulties and it seemed like a device that could get the school back on an even keel."
Washwood Heath became, in November 2002, the first school in England to have an interim executive board. With eight members - half the size of a normal governing body - it pulled the school out of special measures in just four terms.
Interim boards are the ultimate sanction. A measure of last resort, they involve the local education authority disbanding the governing body and installing its own board for a limited period.
The Department for Education and Skills says the power should be used only in exceptional circumstances, where "the governing body (is) considered incapable, with support, of turning the school around".
There are just nine IEBs to date, most - but not all - in schools in special measures. The powers can also be invoked for schools with serious weaknesses, or which have failed to comply with a formal warning from their LEA.
Their small size is a defining characteristic. And they bring focus and expertise, and an ability to act quickly without getting distracted by old arguments.
Tony Howells, who succeeded Professor Brighouse at Birmingham and appointed Washwood Heath's board, says he went for a mix of educationists and community people, all with experience of being governors elsewhere.
"Finding the right people is the key," he says. "I spoke to different community groups and people in the wider local authority about who might be able to manage this particular situation. I was absolutely candid about what was expected and that any reversion to the kind of behaviour we'd seen before would mean they were removed."
Indeed, IEBs are answerable to the local authority in a way that ordinary governing bodies are not.
The Washwood Heath IEB includes a local Muslim magistrate, a director of the National College for School Leadership, and others with long experience of governing bodies.
"We wanted a mixture of community involvement, expert skill, political awareness and total commitment to improving the situation in the most rapid time possible," Mr Howells says.
Cecil Knight, the retired head who chairs the IEB, says it has followed standard governance procedures, with the usual committee structures such as finance and personnel - not least to set in place good practices for the new governing body which will take over next year. Lines of responsibility with the head are clearly marked.
But he suggests they keep a closer eye on what happens in the school than many governing bodies. "Most governing bodies are composed mainly of lay people," he says. "We have a body of financial and educational expertise and that clearly makes a difference in prioritising, making decisions and ensuring a strong line of accountability.
"The head and senior staff are aware they can't pull the wool over our eyes. We have a pretty honest and frank dialogue."
Interim executive boards are not limited to secondary schools. Hampshire county council introduced one in failing Langdown junior school in the New Forest, with a similar mix of council officials and community figures. In this case, several of them had served on the previous governing body. In an example of how the community can shape an IEB, Janet Sheriton, head of governor services at Hampshire, says governors persuaded the council to give them more seats.
"But that was only because there were at least four good governors on the existing board who could make a useful contribution," Ms Sheriton says.
The four governors had not been able to provide "critical mass" on the old board, which saw Langdown go into special measures last autumn. Now, on the IEB, they share all tasks with officers. "We will in due course have to hand back power," IEB chair Judy Moore says. "We do not want to de-skill them."
In contrast, Southend took a different approach with Thorpe Bay school, in special measures since 1999. Its IEB is composed entirely of local authority people.
"The school wasn't getting worse but there was no sign of it coming out of special measures," says director of education Lorraine O'Reilly.
Governors simply were not up to the job and denial had set in. Ms O'Reilly decided to put herself in the firing line and chair the board personally.
Her fellow members include her three assistant directors, Southend's lead councillor for education and the director of the local education action zone.
That kind of line-up is perhaps only possible in a small LEA. But the board also formed three advisory groups of teachers, educational partners, and community groups and neighbours, to ensure it was not isolated and to try to rekindle public faith in the school.
Thorpe Bay offers another angle: it is a foundation school, a fact which had made it harder for the LEA to intervene. "We were between a rock and a hard place until the new regulations came out," Ms O'Reilly says. "They gave us freedom to engage in a foundation school in a way we couldn't before. Until then, we had to work in agreement with the head and chair of governors."
Ms O'Reilly admits staff were divided on the IEB, and there have been voluntary redundancies, resignations and an entirely new senior management team. The jury is still out; but halfway through its year, the response of Ofsted is understood to be encouraging. "We couldn't have moved on to this degree with the previous management and governance arrangements," Ms O'Reilly says.
The acid test will come when power is handed back to regular governing bodies. In Birmingham, Cecil Knight says he will recommend that the shadow board - which will be appointed by Mr Howells to run alongside the IEB until a full governing body returns next year - should include the traditional elected parent and teacher representatives.
Regulations have yet to be published to govern handovers, and all will be watching closely to see there is no return to strife. Mr Howells says the great lesson of IEBs is that governors and teachers need absolute clarity about their respective roles.
"That way everybody can talk about things in a civilised and calm manner."