Time to do the business?

31st March 2000 at 01:00
Can governors learn anything from those who sit on the boards of companies? Karen Thornton reports.

GOVERNORS are becoming increasingly involved in the nitty gritty of school management, not least as a result of government initiatives on everything from teachers' pay and performance to raising standards of pupil achievement.

Do these things add up to an appropriate role for volunteers who, despite taking a keen and genuine interest in local schools, often come from very different backgrounds from the pupils and parents who use them?

The Institute for Public Policy Research, a London-based think tank, recently brought together a range of people to debate the future of governance.

They included business people,academics, local and central government, governor organisations and trainers.

The key speaker, who, like the other participants, cannot be publicly named under the rules of the conference, used the business sector to help him make his case for a less hands-on but more

representative role for governors.

Governors, he said, are not always essential. Drawing on a comparison with the world of business, if they have a role, it should be representing the interests of "consumers" - parents and pupils.

Governing bodies are dominated by "producer" (teacher) interests. If that is rectified, governing bodies might be able to fulfil their proper "non-executive" role. Extending the business analogy, their most important job would be the appointment of a head, the equivalent of choosing a chief executive.

Whether the private sector can make governors more effective is another question. And this was where confusion began to brew.

"There are circumstances where the private sector would manage a school better than it's currently being managed," he said. "If that's the case, the issues of governance have to be very carefully thought out. I wouldn't be prepared to take over in circumstances where we had no authority to correct inefficiencies in the existing management."

In other words, private-sectorinvolvement in school management, which the Government encourages, may depend on the hands-off trusteeship style of governance with which businesses are more familiar.

Others shared his concerns that governing bodies don't represent the interests of communities or parents. Research suggests 40 per cent of chairs of boards have educational backgrounds.

Working-class parents, it appears, don't get a look-in.

It was also pointed out that governors have legal duties extending far beyond the business model of governance.

Accountability to parents (consumers) is just one of these. Others include taking a strategic view of school development, monitoring and evaluating policies, and being a "critical friend".

"Taking governors out of schools would be like taking Parliament away and letting civil servants come in and do the job," said one participant.

Another contributor asked whether comparisons with

business models of governance were appropriate.

"Is the problem we have that the comparison with the chief executive is not the right one? All the legal responsibilities are with governors. Heads are not chief executives. The key role of being a critical friend is not enshrined in legislation. We are talking about a balance of power."

Many school governors might well prefer the more hands-off supervisory role of business trustees and non-executive directors, and would happily leave the professionals to get on with it but that is not the world they live in.

The seminar demonstrated that talk of separate management and governance roles in schools is misplaced.

Governors are already deeply involved in what business would consider management roles.

Comparisons with business models may help stimulate thinking about more efficient ways of doing things but governors do not start with a clean slate.

The reality of governors' work is a long way removed from that of business. Probably for the very good reason that they do not behave as if they were running businesses. At least, not yet.

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