Mark out your territory with red tape

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Accountability is just as important as effectiveness, argues Emma Westcott in response to claims that governors burden heads with bureaucracy

LAST WEEK in these pages Dr Chai Patel outlined the recommendations of his taskforce team on red tape affecting headteachers. In seeking to minimise the regulatory burden on heads, the report has a number of interesting things to say about governors.

It concludes that the role of governors is too vague, that there are too many governors, and too many meetings. Recommendations include a diminution in the role and size of governing bodies, to avoid a plethora of sub-committee meetings.

Its challenge to the Department for Education and Employment - to devise a "realistic" role for part-time volunteers - is welcome. For too long it has been forbidden to suggest that the complex and important-sounding duties ascribed to governors in guidance and regulations bear little resemblance to what actually happens.

There are governors adding value to the work of schools by asking useful questions, sharing expertise, making good l suggestions and generally providing support and encouragement. But they are adding value almost in spite of the framework for governance and not because of it. Headteachers' time is poorly spent coaching governors for roles to which they are ill-suited. Where governors are so reliant on heads for steerage and information, it is unlikely that any meaningful exercise in accountability is taking place.

It is not clear that the size of the governing body is really significant, although the level of prescription around meetings clearly is burdensome. The task force could have recommended allowing greater flexibility in meeting arrangements. As its report acknowledges, we should be concerned about the outcomes of governance, not the processes.

Yet, not everything which headteachers find burdensome should be dismissed as red tape. Some participants in the National Association of Head Teachers' recent workload

survey appeared to regard being held to account as burdensome, rather than distinguishing between productive and counter-productive forms of accountability. One head said: "I could do my job better without governors at all." The same could be said for employment law, or rules about admissions and exclusions, but that is not a good argument for jettisoning them.

Headteachers cannot be blamed for adopting this stance when judgments about their performance are based on a narrow range of criteria. Other important values are sometimes neglected in pursuit of "effectiveness" in raising standards. First and foremost, school leaders and governors should be concerned with pupils' achievement.

But the DFEE's recnt report, School's Plus: Building Learning Communities, reaffirmed the wider role of the school as a community resource and its leader as a community champion. Headteachers will welcome this acknowledgement of the school's role in its community - and the resources promised to fulfil it.

We need governance which assures accountability in this wider societal role. The task force acknowledges in passing that governance might be about more than effectiveness, when it states that it is "an expression of civic society". Disappointingly, the report goes on to recommend a future for governance which takes no account of this dimension. The task force says it is "attracted to the model of a private company's board of non-executive directors", the key role of which is to appoint and monitor an effective chief executive (headteacher).

The attractions of such a model to the task force are clear. It might streamline governors' role and distinguish governance from the day-to-day management. But this model does not alter the present insularity of school governance.

For the past decade or so governors have been encouraged to focus on the performance of their own pupils and schools. This can lead to decisions which have a detrimental wider impact. Schools are not free-standing units of activity, on a par with private companies. They are part of a collective service to their communities, and to the general public who fund them.

The recent experience in further education - cited favourably in the report - has encouraged FE leaders and governors to act in this individualised manner. Thank goodness we have now recognised the shortcomings of this approach. Structures which support collaboration and co-ordination are replacing those requiring isolation and competition.

We are trying to recreate the FE governing body as a place where decisions are made on educational grounds in the context of local needs and the strengths of the various providers serving it - not enterprises which, in some cases, have expanded so far beyond their own quality assurance cordon that governors are not sure what they are doing, or why.

The better regulation task force is right to call for a radical rethink of school governance, and headteachers are right to want a form of governance which supports the core business of the school. But let us develop new structures which balance heads' and governors' individual responsibility for their school's performance with their collective responsibility to the learning communities they serve.

Emma Westcott is an education policy officer with the Local Government Association, writing in a personal capacity. She is a governor for two schools and an FE college

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