Retiring from an unequal contest

11th October 1996 at 01:00
After eight years as a chair of governors, Jane Abramson has had enough of meetings and bureaucracy. Tired and angry, she's decided to quit. I read with interest Terry Mahoney's article (TES, October 4) opening the debate on the role of governors. I have been a chair of governors for eight years, four at a middle school and four at a high school, and after a lot of heart-searching have decided to stand down.

I have put an enormous amount of time and energy into my work. I visited both schools every week, joined many classes and school activities, and got to know most of the staff.

Over the years I have read a ridiculous number of circulars from the Department for Education and Employment and the local education authority; the bureaucracy involved in local management of schools beggars belief. I have spent countless hours in full governing body meetings and in finance and staffing and curriculum subcommittee meetings, and helped to formulate numerous school policies. I have survived an OFSTED inspection, and all the work involved in Action Planning.

I have talked endlessly with the head about problems in the school - finance, staffing, premises, and pupil discipline - and have offered a sympathetic ear and support by way of the occasional letter to the local education authority to add weight to the school's requests for help.

I have acquired a considerable amount of knowledge about the legal responsibilities and duties of governors, and have probably broken the law in not putting on the agenda often enough the compulsory annual discussion on whether to ballot for grant-maintained status - something I deeply resent is the Government's arrogant and dictatorial approach to this subject.

At the end of the summer term I took stock of the achievements of the governing body under my chairmanship. Had I and my fellow governors had any real impact on the school's effectiveness? Would the school have been any different if we had not been there? I came to the conclusion that our impact had been minimal and in no way commensurate with the amount of time and effort put in.

On top of this, I felt resentful that the governors were being used as scapegoats for the decision to shed nine teachers; governors may make recommendations to school management, but these are not always accepted. The reality of financial management is that it is left to the school management on a day-to day-basis, and governors cannot be expected to oversee all the detail.

While I shall retain an interest in the school, I shall enjoy having more free time and I am particularly relieved that I will not have to take on the new responsibility of reviewing the performance of headteachers and deputies, a task which I agree governors are not trained to do.

I would welcome a complete review of the position, responsibilities and powers of governors. The present system is time-consuming both to volunteer, unpaid governors and to senior management of schools.

I do not believe that policy makers have paused long enough from expanding the avalanche of bureaucracy imposed upon school management and governors to ask whether what they are doing is actually improving standards of education.


The Government has rejected calls for new legal definitions of the roles of heads and governors.The Department for Education and Employment has told the teachers' pay review body that the Government believes existing legislation "already provides a distinctive role for governors and headteachers". And, rather than being concerned about governor interference in the running of schools, the Government seems more worried about governors not acting quickly enough when things go wrong.

"The instrument of government provides for the conduct of the school to be under the direction of the governing body, and the articles of government provide for the head to be responsible for the internal management and organisation of the school," says the DFEE.

The Government recognises there is some overlap between these, "but this can be helpful in allowing for a variety of different ways of working, depending, for example, on the size and type of the school and the experience of the headteacher".

Most governors appreciated that day-to-day management is the head's job, "acting within the strategic framework and objectives set by the governors".

"As in any relationship, things can go wrong but serious disputes between headteachers and governors are the exception," adds the DFEE. "Governing bodies are right to demand high standards from heads and teachers in schools, as they are accountable for the school's performance to parents and the wider community."

Good leadership is crucial to raising standards, it argues: "A worrying minority of governing bodies are not tackling underperformance by heads. "

The DFEE is to publish this term Guidance on Good Governance, produced by a working party of heads and governors. Though not a code of practice, it covers much of what the Nolan Committee of Standards on Public Life called for when it proposed "a model code of best practice on governance".

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