Governors are reluctant to use their powers, leaving heads to fill the vacuum, reports Susannah Kirkman.
Governors are not using many of the powers given them by the Education Reform Act. Local management of schools has made heads - not governors - more powerful, according to recent research by Sheffield University's Management School.
A study of 21 schools in the north of England revealed that governors still leave decisions about the curriculum and the school budget to the head; they have chosen not to exercise their new responsibilities in these crucial areas. At most schools, the governors' role has considerable limitations and is sometimes no more than "supportive" or "advisory".
The researchers found only two examples of a governing body intervening on a curriculum issue. At a secondary school, governors disagreed with the way guidance was taught, and primary governors wanted French rather than table tennis on the curriculum.
A teacher governor then accused the primary governors of being "power crazy" and of wanting to "control the curriculum". Yet the 1986 Act gives governors responsibility for oversight of the curriculum, and they can change the local authority's policy if they see fit. In practice, governors are reluctant to interfere in the work of professionals. "Heads and teachers have worked hard to retain their autonomy in curriculum matters, and have succeeded," says the report.
Another constraint is the national curriculum, which is so prescriptive that governors do not feel there is much room for debate.
Governors are also reluctant to get involved with the nitty-gritty of drawing up the school budget. The study found "little evidence of debate in the governing body about issues such as the balance betweenIthe number of staff employed and the provision of books and teaching materials". There was only one example among the 21 schools of the governors over-riding the head on a budget decision, in this case to retain an extra teacher on the staff.
Personnel is one area where governors are happier to get involved but, as the study points out, they were often involved informally in staffing issues long before the 1988 Act. Governors are now required by law to take part in the appointment of heads and deputies, but they like to take part in appointments at all levels, and they must be involved in dismissal procedures.
In half of the schools, the study discovered, the head is essentially in charge of the school with governors having little impact on its direction. Sometimes they are happy to delegate their responsibilities to the head because they have built up a relationship of mutual trust. In other schools, the head rules by default as governors have little idea of their role, or the head retains control by out-manouevring governors. One head was described as a "master at manipulating governorsIhe's got them eating out of his hand. "
In a few schools, the head and the chair of governors agree to share responsibility. The relationship of the head and chair may be based on mutual respect and support. At one comprehensive in a "rough community", the head felt she was able to "off-load" on to the chair of governors.
Other governors feel their role is to share responsibility, but also to monitor what happens at the school. One chairman described the governing body's role as "to make sure that the school is properly run and not to run it".
At some unhappy schools, the head and governors battle over their responsibilities.
One head experienced palpitations and cold sweats during tense governors' meetings; another commented that he felt "quite bitter" that he was not allowed to make appointments.
In only one school was there any suggestion that governors regarded the head as ineffective, yet there were several examples of conflict at different schools. "It is not clear that (these) governors' methods are doing anything useful," suggests the study. "In fact, the extra stress they place on the headteacher can hardly be of help to him or the school."
The study concludes that local management has made headteachers, not governors, more powerful. But it does not criticise what is happening, pointing out that the Government may be wrong to try and change the role of governors.
"The Changing Face of School Governor Responsibilities: a mismatch between government intention and actuality?" David Shearn, Jane Broadbent, Richard Laughlin and Heidrun Willig-Atherton. Sheffield University Management School, 9 Mappin Street, Sheffield S1 4DT. Published in School Organisation", vol 15, No 2, 1995