When we were all busy forming local governors' associations four or five years ago, we had two main areas of concern.
One was finance: the introduction of local management of schools coupled with swingeing budget cuts left us feeling that our main function was to take the blame for reductions in staff and resources. The other factor which aroused indignation was the growing pile of Department for Education and Employment circulars listing our responsibilities - special needs, religious education, standard assessment tests, reporting to parents.
Many of us felt that not only were we being asked to assume an excessive burden, but that in many cases we were told to implement policies with which we disagreed.
We wanted consultation, we said, and we got it. But are we not rather missing the point here? We may have gained the right to be consulted on the fine print of every DFEE and local authority initiative, but what many governors really want is the right to decline any increase in their already overwhelming responsibilities.
This was well illustrated at a recent meeting organised by my local authority. The governor support unit holds a briefing session for chairs at the beginning of each term to alert them to items they should have on the agenda for their next meeting. This time we were told that we must appoint a governor with special responsibility for literacy, who would have to attend a training course in summer. We were reminded that the governing body was responsible for responding, within 16 days, to a statement naming its school for a particular child. It was suggested that it could be delegated to the chair or the special needs governor.
Two substantial documents on child protection issues have just been sent to schools. Governors are responsible, we were told, for ensuring that a policy is in place and that it is implemented. We must also nominate a governor, usually the chair, to take responsibility for child protection, particularly when an allegation is made against the head. Oh yes, and training is required for this too. We were reminded of our duties to agree targets for our school with the LEA, and given a brisk run through the fast-tracking process for dismissing poor teachers.
These last two issues - child protection and competency procedures - seem fraught with difficulties and pitfalls in the forms of litigious parents, industrial tribunals and media exposure. To suggest governors can tackle them with the aid of a do-it-yourself manual and a couple of hours' training seems reckless. At one extreme, many governors will be driven away by increasingly complex demands on their time, at the other, tin-pot dictators will feel empowered to hunt down child abusers and unpopular teachers.
Oh, for the days when all a governor needed was a firm handshake, a clear speaking voice and a selection of nice hats.
Joan Dalton is a governor in the east Midlands