As MPs reconsider the role of governors, Joan Sallis calls for leadership and imagination from heads and their boards
It's a decade, give or take, since the arrival of the self-managing school, and with it the responsibility of governors for such contentious matters as the school budget, heads' and teachers' pay and discipline, and the school's strategic policies. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Parliamentary education select committee is currently considering school governors' powers.
Although governors have had great power on paper for more than a century in state schools and for much longer in others, by 1987 much of this power had degenerated into fudge and pretence. In 1987 probably as many as 100,000 parents arrived on governing bodies. Parents, with their direct passionate concern, as well as 35,000 teachers with their inside knowledge of how schools run, made a huge impact. Get the right people, and they will find their way to the right tasks.
It's also more than a decade since I began to receive questions from school governors for The TES Agenda column - at least 500 either by post or in person over those years. Struggling to make a reality of their legal responsibilities, they sometimes found heads resistant.
Some parent governors found it difficult to see the difference between being a representative and being a delegate. Others claimed that heads denied them their representative role or did not help them to carry it out. Teacher governors had the same problem, but often also that of establishing their right to take on sensitive governor duties, and worries about speaking freely in the presence of their boss.
I have met a high proportion of heads, too, nearly all preoccupied with territory, and some worried about a troublesome minority of governors. With enormous potential for upsetting the school apple-cart, this minority has not yet grasped two essential features of their role. One, that they were not there to check up on a day-by-day basis the work of people paid to manage the school's time, space, personnel and equipment and teach its children; the other, that their power was corporate and indivisible.
However, there are probably just as many headteachers unwilling to accept governors' strategic role as there are governors on the wrong track. Governors are usually willing to be told that it isn't their job to carry out the dry-land equivalent of checking the life-belts every day. But they do need to know that there are systems within their control for ensuring that the life-belts are checked to a suitable standard. When governors fidget about operational matters, it is often because they either don't understand their strategic responsibility or are not encouraged to exercise it.
Nevertheless, many governing bodies have assumed a clear strategic role and are fast learning how to build a good team, play a significant part in school improvement and even, in some cases, review and appraise their own effectiveness. Although many others are still preoccupied with the - now familiar - problems of defensive professionals, lack of a real job to do, A and B teams, and mountains of unintelligible paper, nowadays there are also plenty of answers about as well as questions. Much governor training is first class.
But in territorial waters stormy weather threatens. During this year's Easter break, education news was dominated by teachers' union conferences resisting any form of performance-related pay. If there is trouble over this, governors will be in the thick of it. They know that these decisions will be sensitive and potentially divisive, and many dislike the whole idea of rewarding individual performance, which they see as a product of leadership, teamwork and appropriate resourcing as well as talent.
It was almost predictable that there would be some major review of reformed school governance after 10 years, especially with the implementation of Labour's first education Act (School Standards and Framework Act 1998) being imminent. The Parliamentary select committee has now been charged with this task.
MPs on the education select committee will undoubtedly listen to many headteachers' fears about loose cannon governors. And no one would deny that heads do need the public's understanding of what it means to share serious power with a group of mixed-ability volunteers whom they can't directly instruct or control, at a time when schools are news. But they also need to see themselves in the perspective of history and accept that schools have never before had the frightening independence which they now enjoy.
Time was when the most serious decisions schools had to make related to the organisation of children's learning. Now their training extends into the realms of strategy, law, finance, building maintenance, personnel management, public relations, competitive bidding and sponsorship. Do heads seriously think that any political party will contemplate giving all that power to one person, however able and experienced? Will any prudent educator want it? Are not shared decisions more robust and, when current law can so savagely punish those who falter, doesn't it feel safer to share them? Increasingly, the outstanding and well-respected head is the one who gets the sharing relationships right.
Above all, however, it is time that professionals in education realised that theirs is not the only service which is accountable to lay overseers. Those who protest about "untrained amateurs" having a strategic role in schools, forget that outside education it is widely accepted - in central and local government, public services, business, the magistrates' courts, and so on - that policy decisions are made by lay (and often representative) bodies but advised on and executed by experts.
I do hope that the select committee will not receive evidence only from the sour and disaffected, as tends to happen when policies are reviewed. I believe that the committee will be anxious also to hear the experiences of the many ordinary governors who know what they are doing and believe in it and the many heads who are making a success of the partnership. Do send in your views to Matthew Compton, Clerk of the education select committee, House of Commons or to firstname.lastname@example.org It is not only governors who have needed training. Heads need training too. I wish I were sure that the new programmes being introduced by the Government for would-be and serving heads were strong enough in the governor dimension. Managing better with governors demands a close examination of expectations on both sides; a clear understanding of roles and boundaries; techniques to help governors become familiar with the school and grow as a team; good working practices; and above all an understanding of how to share the school's emergent thinking so that staff and governors explore issues in step instead of, as traditionally, in turns. Governors shouldn't feel that they are just rubber stamps.
What I most look forward to in the next 10 years is that schools will boast about their governing bodies' quality, because the quality of the governing body, like the quality of the staff, gives evidence of the headteacher's leadership and imagination.
Joan Sallis has written a training manual, Managing Better with Governors: A Practical Guide to Working Together for School Success, for heads, aspiring heads and governors. Just published by Financial Times Management, it contains many working papers - discussion aids, model processes and documents, and case studies - and 10 self-contained Governors' Guidelines which heads can use to support their own governing bodies. Price pound;69, discounted to pound;58 for orders before May 15, Freephone 01704 508080 quoting TES-1.
CORRECTION: In the Agenda column of April 16 a typographical error ("not" for "now") in the answer on school assemblies reversed the meaning of the sentence. The 1998 School Standards and Framework Act while repeating the requirement to have a daily act of worship for each pupil, DOES allow for separate assemblies for different year groups, thus removing the reason schools have often given for non-compliance. The relevant parts are Section 70 and Schedule 20. Our apologies.
Agenda will return next week