Search is on for lean, mean governors
School governing bodies are to be made "leaner and meaner" under plans being developed by ministers. The new bodies are to be modelled on the 76 interim executive boards that local authorities and ministers have sent in to fix "failing" schools. But analysis by The TES shows that many of these have been less successful than the Government claims.
Jim Knight, the schools minister, is chairing a review of school governance, which is due to report back in the autumn. Its job is to overhaul governing bodies to make them smaller, more diverse and more business-like.
Mr Knight has suggested that governing bodies should become more like interim executive boards, or like those in academies, because they had a "significant transformational effect". Members of such boards are often managers and business people appointed by the local authority to rescue a school in special measures. Unlike governors, they are usually paid.
Speaking to a Children's Services Network governors' conference in London, Mr Knight said: "There's clear evidence that a leaner, meaner governing body can revolutionise school performance, and I think we need to explore whether that's the right option for the future."
Last year's Ofsted annual report, reviewing the first 25 boards appointed, said they "acted as a catalyst for school improvement by providing clear strategic direction and robust challenge".
The TES has looked at all the 76 schools where interim executive boards have been appointed. Despite their work, 34 of these schools were subsequently listed for closure, replacement by new schools or had continued to struggle.
Between 2002 and their most recent inspection, nine had improved sufficiently in the eyes of Ofsted that the interim boards have been dissolved and traditional governing bodies restored. Another six had gradually improved but remained overseen by interim boards. For others, it was too soon to judge.
Judith Bennett, chair of the National Governors' Association, said the boards bore no resemblance to governing bodies. They had a specific remit, were time-limited, and had a skill level impossible to replicate across all schools.
"We have no evidence proving the success of interim executive boards and remain unconvinced this is a model for all governing bodies to follow," she said.
Janet Sheriton, Hampshire governor services manager, is another sceptic. "They may work as a lifeboat model for school governance, but it's not likely to be the best model for building the fleet," she said.
One of the 10 schools that have improved under an interim board is St Aloysius RC College in Highgate, north London. Jim Knight said the outcome of its board's work was "little short of miraculous".
But Tom Mannion, the head, said credit for the school's achievements lay with its staff. "Clearly the board had a role to play," he said. "But it is important to recognise the contribution of the leadership team and the staff in turning the school around and driving improvement."
NOT ENOUGH CHANGE
Portway Community School in Bristol has had an interim executive board since March 2005 but it is still struggling.
When Ofsted visited in March this year, it expressed hope that the school would improve on last year's "hugely disappointing" GCSE results and overall rating of "inadequate".
But Bristol City Council decided the only solution was to shut down Portway entirely and replace it with an academy in September.
After the IEB was established, Portway was taken out of special measures but is still under notice to improve.
Malcolm Broad, its chairman, said the board had been effective in reducing the school's significant budget deficit: "It proves that a focused effort on the school's resources can bring about improvement," he said.
'INTERIM EXECUTIVE BOARDS WILL NOT BE ACCOUNTABLE'
Governors at Conway Primary in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, are resisting moves to replace them with an interim executive board.
The school was placed in special measures after its most recent Ofsted visit in November. A damning report attacked the school for its very low standards and criticised teaching and management. However, it was positive about the governors, saying they were "keen and supportive" and fulfilled their duties satisfactorily.
Last month, a monitoring inspection by Ofsted found that the primary was still inadequate. Birmingham City Council has since announced proposals to improve it, which include an interim board.
Parwez Hussain (above), Conway's chair of governors, is furious at the decision and claims the local authority is trying to mask its own mistakes by saying the governors are obstructive to change.
He said that when the school was placed in special measures, the local authority's first move was to remove Peter Courts, the headteacher, without consulting the governors. The council then appointed two existing assistant heads as acting headteachers. They worked under an executive head, Anne Bufton, head of a nearby primary, who was brought in for just two days a week. All have now left, and there is a new acting head.
Mr Hussain said the plan took two of the best teachers out of the classroom and placed them in posts they were not ready for.
"The local authority set up our school to fail," he said.
He doubts whether bringing in a team of professional governors would be effective in improving the school, which has a majority of pupils from Pakistani backgrounds.
"They need to have experience of our school and staff and our community," he said. "Instead, they will be just officers saying 'This is what is needed'. No one will be holding them to account and they will not hold the local authority to account."
Mr Hussain, a contracts manager for the Learning and Skills Council, added that the governors had gone out of their way to seek local authority advice on improving the school and been on every training course they could find. Many of the 15-strong body, which includes three teachers, work in education.
Birmingham confirmed it was going through "due process" to establish an interim executive board.
A spokesman added: "This move is in order to address the issues raised by HMI inspectors and bring about rapid improvement in pupils achievement and progress."
Photograph: Roy Kilcullen.