Timely reminders

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Governors can have more than 1,000 separate responsibilities. Demanding and time-consuming work - to say the least. And these men and women are volunteers who often have full-time jobs. If they are to carry out the functions of their posts responsibly, time must be set aside to:

* attend meetings of their governing body;

* serve on at least one committee;

* visit the school periodically to see how it functions and to learn how the headteacher leads, teachers teach, administrative and support staff work and, most important, how children learn;

* attend training sessions to develop knowledge, skills and attitudesthat will help them to be effective governors; and

* read as widely as possible to keep up-to-date with what is happening tothe educational system in this country (and possibly other countries), especially as it affects the work of the governing body.

It is obvious a governor must manage her or his time effectively. But how?It is important to plan visits carefully and be ruthless about the choice of training courses and the literature to be read.

Attending meetings takes up the most hours, so it is crucial to ensure that that time is spent efficiently and effectively. Governors need to feel that they are moving their school forward; they must do the right things as well as do things right.

The meeting agenda is critical. The clerk should consult with the chair and the head about its contents. Some items - such as apologies, minutes of the last meeting, matters arising and the head's report - have lives of their own. How valuably these are regarded will depend on the governing body, but they must never take up time that ought to be devoted to providing the school with a strategic view, formulating policy, acting as the school's critical friend and securing its accountability.

Governors have a right to place any items on the agenda. However, these should be sent to the chair, head or clerk at least three weeks in advance of a meeting. And as far as possible, governors should be clear about the purpose of discussing each item - supporting papers can help. Alternatively, there should be a brief, simple paragraph against each item explaining the reason for its appearance on the agenda.

"Any other business" is notorious as a time-waster. The chair can make a lethal mistake at the end of meetings by asking fellow governors if they want to raise any matters; it can be an open invitation to trivia. To counter this, several governing bodies have changed this item to "any other urgent business". More recently, many governing bodies have asked governors to alert the chair or clerk at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting if they have any thing they wish to raise under this item or risk being ruled out of order.

The agenda should be organised so the most important items are put at the top and given more time for discussion. Governors should have some notion of how much time should be spent discussing each item. They then should decide on any action. There is often a tension between making a decision then moving on and giving all governors the opportunity of making their contributions to the discussion and debate. This calls for sensitive but firm and intelligent management by the chair.

The agenda and supporting papers should reach governors at least seven days before the meeting. It's up to governors then to read the contents and highlight the sections they intend to discuss. The head should avoid tabling papers at the meeting, although this is sometimes impossible. Either governors legitimately request time to read them (thereby extending the meeting), or consideration is deferred to the next meeting, making the governing body inefficient.

While all governors must be encouraged to contribute to discussions, the effective governing body starts and ends the meeting on time. This needs firm chairing - as well as agreement among governors that discussions must be focused. Determining when the meeting should start is often a recipe for conflict: an early start will preclude many governors with full-time jobs from arriving on time. However, if the start is much later than 7.30pm, it will be difficult to finish much before 10pm. Only seasoned MPs seem to be able to function meaningfully much after 10pm.

Minutes should give a brief flavour of the discussion of each item, the decision made and the person or people who are meant to take the action. Highlighting their names will help with time management at the next meeting when progress is discussed.

In the interest of equity, governors should fairly share the work coming out of a meeting. It can become onerous for the chair or head to take most of the action - and the rest of the governors feel uninvolved. This can make the governing body dysfunctional.

Much of the hack work in effective governing bodies is now done in committees. This works well when they have clear terms of reference, convene at least two weeks before the main meeting and produce succinct minutes which feed into the deliberations of the governing body as soon after their meetings as possible. A governing body that spends it time reviewing all committee decisions ends up in a time warp and rapidly becomes dysfunctional.

David Sassoon is an education consultant and clerk to several governing bodies

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