Too much too soon?

24th November 2000 at 00:00
Jacqui Smith certainly brought radical ideas for the reform of governing bodies to their annual meeting, but are they a bit too

radical? Karen Thornton reports.

IT'S taken three attempts to get a minister to address the National Governors' Council's annual conference in London. But at least the wait was worth it.

School standards minister Jacqui Smith used the event as the launchpad for a new consultation document on the role of governors (TES, November 17).

The changes would reduce governors' workload, improve effectiveness, and tackle recruitment and retention problems.

But governors have expressed concerns both about the scale of the reforms and the short time for consultation.

Proposals include smaller governing bodies, giving heads responsibility for most personnel matters, and giving the Education Secretary power to sack governing bodies in failing schools.

The proposals come after a series of reports raising concerns about governors' workload. Last year a Commons education select committee report said the workload was manageable but recommended compulsory training. Then came a Cabinet Office taskforce report which blamed governors for much of the red tape afflicting heads. It recommended reducing the size and responsibilities of boards.

Most recently, a TES survey found governors increasingly resentful of some of the managerial and administrative tasks dumped upon them.

Ms Smith insisted the aim of the Department for Education and Employment's reforms was not to devalue governance, but enhance and strengthen it. She told governors they were victims of their own success in managing growing responsibilities.She said: "I want to scotch the impression we treat you as unpaid civil servants. What we value is your independence, which is vital to local accountability."

Particularly controversial was the plan to reduce governors' role in personnel matters, especially in interviewing new staff. Tony Longworth, from Bury, was applauded when he said interviewing was a vital part of governors' strategic role.

Margaret Young, from Suffolk, said interviewing "was one of the most interesting things we do". "It's when you learn what the school is proposing for subject areas. Headteachers and heads of department welcome the opportunity of sharing interviewing with governors. It would be absolutely disastrous to take that away from us."

Sheffield's Sandra Tominson added: "I don't want to be involved in every interview. (But) my head likes governors there for internal or temporary appointments, because it is seen as fairer - it's less who's favoured by the head."

Ms Smith reponded that governors' should be heavily involved with agreeing a strategy for recruitment, but this should take place "as part of the governing body's general discussion", rather than before interviews.

Performance management - governors' newest responsibility - was another issue raised by delegates. Some have already appraised and set performance targets for their head this year, helped by an external adviser.

For those still struggling to get advisers in, Ms Smith said the deadline for completing the process would be extended from the end of December to April 6. However, the announcement did not save Cambridge Education Associates, the DFEE contractor responsible for allocating advisers, from strong criticism.

Chris Gale, NGC's chairwoman, said governors were delighted to see the minister. But she said they had major concerns over the length of time for consultation about such significant changes. The council will meet again before the February 28 consultation deadline to decide its response.

The proposals are at, or phone 0845 60 222 60, quoting reference 03332000.


Heads to be responsible for staff appointments and discretionary pay allowances, below senior management level.

Reduced governor involvement in dismissals, grievances, the detailed preparation of budgets, and premises management.

Smaller governing bodies with fewer parent and LEA representatives. But the proportion of parents on boards would rise.

Schools to share governors, with more flexible arrangements such as single boards for groups of schools.

Secretary of State to have power to remove the entire governing body of a failing school. Interim governors may be paid.

Review of clerking arrangements, training, and funding, including a plan for every five primaries to share a clerkbursar.

Pilots of schemes to improve recruitment, retention and representativeness of governors in inner cities.

Commitment to train heads to keep governors informed.

Set education-authority targets for governor recruitment.

Set up a national register of prospective additional governors for failing schools.

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