Laurence Pollock looks at how well-managed committees can ease governors' workload.
GOVERNORS tend to spring clean in the autumn with the start of a new school year. The chair may be re-elected and there is usually some reorganisation of the various committees.
But this hardly amounts to a major overhaul, more like a quick run round with the dustpan and brush. And with the rapid change in governors' responsibilities in the past 10 years the old furniture may be quite unsuitable.
Ministers are looking for a more radical annual re-evaluation of how governing bodies' committees work and their terms of reference. A Department for Education and Employment spokesman stressed that there was no right way to structure the committee system, but statutory guidance was issued last year (see http:www.legislation.hmso.gov.uksisi19991999 2163.htm). It carries the familiar prohibition on staff governors chairing committees and includes the requirement from April that the statutory committees must not be clerked by governors or the head. There are de-tailed specifications for these groups.
At present only three committees are legally required: pupil discipline and staff dismissal in all schools, and admissions (except in community schools, where the education authority sets the admissions policy).
However, it is the discretionary committees that truly set the tone of a school. With the advent of increased delegation, finance has become particularly sensitive. Curriculum, treading a delicate path between setting
policy and operational involvement, also has a critical role. Staffing, or personnel, can raise difficult issues. There is strong anecdotal evidence that many governors only feel really comfortable on the premises committee.
The curriculum committee at Bramcote Hills comprehensive, Nottinghamshire, took a step up to become the strategic development committee. Bob Ramsay, chair of governors at the 1,100-pupil secondary, says it was more than relabelling.
"While we assess the progress of the curriculum action plan arising from the last Office for Standards inspection, the SDC looks at other issues like re-siting classrooms and staffing. We are a conduit examining broader issues and then passing them on to other committees for more detailed work."
Finance might be many governors' top priority but should it be? Chairwoman Frieda Warman-Brown is steering Whitehawk secondary, a previously failed school in east Brighton, through a new beginning.
"I believe in delegation: we have an expert in finance and we have just appointed a bursar. The majority of finances will be spent on getting staffing right, and failing schools are not easy."
She is willing to leave the finance committee to get on with it. "I talked a number of people into coming on the board when the school begn in September and I think inviting them to get involved with the nitty-gritty of the finance committee would have been a deterrent."
Cardon school, also in Brighton, is a recently merged infant and junior school with around 380 children. Personnel is therefore an important issue in bringing together two sets of staff.
Chair Pat Hawkes, former National Union of Teachers president, has clear views about the ingredients for success.
"Support and training are vital because people will come on with no experience of personnel. But we must have a cross-section of governors."
She is comfortable with staff governors being on personnel: "This is particularly important when you are merging staff."
Keeping the whole system going will depend on clerking. The non-statutory committees, including the working groups favoured in many schools can be self-clerked. Peter Earley, an expert on school governance based at London University's Institute of Education, insists this must be efficiently done.
"At my own school it has taken us nearly two years to get the system in place. We have committees two weeks before the full meeting and the minutes must be available for this on one side of A4. The record is knocked out by chairs and note-takers and then checked by e-mail before going forward."
But there is more to committees than keeping records. Committees can vary in size and shape but official requirements offer little guidance in how to explore this discretion.
For those seeking some inspiration, Jane Martin, education officer at Dudley council, recommends the "AGIT (formerly Action for Governors' Information and Training) Toolkit," now published by Adamson Books.
"There is a section which sets out a step-by-step process on how you should use your committees. You should make sure that the whole governing body is scrutinising the terms of reference at the start of the year. That is the new skill. It is important that the people on those committees own what is being done."
Diana Penton of the National Association of Governors and Managers believes that the spring clean should be done in the summer. "In September everyone is teed up for the new year and the main issue is getting the chair elected and committee membership - you cannot combine a review with those procedures."
If governors carry out a genuine review they should look beyond the terms of reference of existing committees and consider broader experimentation (see TES, February 25). They will have to strike a balance between their formal requirements and an imaginative step forward. There are no easy-to-use maps but the experience of those who have already taken the leap
suggests that the trip is well worth making.
'Individual governors who try to take up a problem
themselves always come to grief'