We must clamp down on rogue governors

21st February 1997 at 00:00
The uneasy relationship between the head and governing body needs fixing, says David Hart. It is good to know that the document Guidance on Good Governance has become an all-time best seller for the Department for Education and Employment. This demonstrates that the process of governance is of consummate interest to governors and heads.

As Gillian Shephard said in the foreword: "I hope it will stimulate debate in all school governing bodies about working practices and procedures." So far so good, but the document, helpful as it undoubtedly is, fails to address fundamental issues which beset the headgoverning body relationship. These were highlighted by a number of developments last autumn.

* In November the National Association of Governors and Managers wrote a letter to the School Teachers' Review Body, asking that governors be accorded "a status and importance commensurate with the large responsibilities they carry by law and by virtue of their pivotal position in the state school system".

Unfortunately, in the process, NAGM asserted that governing bodies managed schools, which is fundamentally untrue, and that heads have only a contributory role to play in determining the school's aims, objectives and policies. More importantly, NAGM failed to understand that it is the head who plays the crucial role in determining the school's effectiveness and that, in reality, the "buck" stops with the head.

* At the end of November, in the wake of The Ridings School affair, Maureen O'Connor wrote an article in Independent Education asking: "Governors are playing an increasingly high profile role in the running of our schools. Are they up to the job?" A short, but misleading, answer would be "Yes, in most cases". But it is an answer which does not do justice to the question, because it ignores the basic fact that it is not the governors who "walk the plank" when things go badly wrong. More often than not it is the head.

* September 1996 saw the introduction of performance criteria for heads and deputies which will lead to full-blown performance reviews by governors from September 1997 onwards. The pay dimension will create many tensions and place wholly unreasonable expectations on many governing bodies. It never ceases to amaze me that the awarding of performance-related pay, which is anathema to most teachers, is seen by the STRB as an appropriate function for untrained volunteer governors. Any self-respecting private or public business would not dream of introducing PRP unless it was piloted and resourced and, above all, devised by a properly-qualified personnel manager. There is enough continuing concern over the implementation of the pre-1996 pay system for heads and deputies without adding further complexity to a role that many governors "fight shy of".

All these developments indicate that too much uncertainty surrounds the relationship between head and governors and that much remains to be done to ensure that all governing bodies operate effectively in the future. The need was well illustrated by the debate in the Committee Stage of the Education Bill on the clause giving the governing body power to specify particular pupil disciplinary measures. The NAHT wanted this deleted and Margaret Hodge put the argument neatly when she said that: "If we accept the wording of the clause, we give governors an executive role. This is not their purpose. Heads and teachers should run schools". The Government minister could not accept the argument and seemed to believe that governors do, indeed, have an executive role to play.

Accordingly, I would like to suggest several reforms which would clarify the respective roles of heads and governors, make governors more accountable and assist governing bodies in the discharge of their responsibilities.

A major effort has to be made to change the culture of evening governing body meetings. Far too many governing body meetings, and committee meetings, take place after school hours. It cannot be in the interests of the efficient execution of their functions for governors, whether or not employed at the school, to spend many hours per year, engaged in important discussions, after most of them have already done a full day's work. It would assist immeasurably if employers were required by law to give reasonable paid leave of absence for employees to attend governing body meetings. There may well be a need to place a statutory maximum on the number of meetings covered by paid leave but the principle has to be right.

The law needs to be changed to remove rogue governors. There are governors who deliberately breach instrumentsarticles of government, or standing orders, despite warnings to the contrary. There are governors who bring the governing body into disrepute by their actions. Yet the grounds for disqualification, and the powers of removal, are few and far between. There is a strong case to look at how the Secretary of State, or appointing and electing bodies, or the governing body itself, should be given enhanced powers to terminate a governorship. Clearly, the individual governor should have a right to be heard before such removal but the current lack of accountability by individual governors for their actions cries out for reform.

Lastly, the Education Reform Act, and subsequent legislation, failed to resolve a central dilemma. The governing body's role is to govern, to establish policy, and to discharge important appeal functions. The head's job is to manage and not just on a day-to-day basis. The trouble is that they do not have all the key powers they need to underpin their management role, unless the governing body choose to delegate those powers given to it to the head. It is a confusing and illogical situation which is leading to an increased level of disputes. It is made worse by advice, even from bodies such as the DFEE, which tells governing bodies that they have a management role. Nothing could be further from the truth.

No one has ever satisfactorily explained why the statutory responsibilities given to the principals (chief executives) of colleges should be withheld from heads. In fact, there is no logical reason for such a distinction.

Accordingly, the head should be accountable to the governing body for the proper management of the budget and resources of the school within the financial estimates approved by the governing body.

Likewise, subject to the general framework established by the governing body for the pay and conditions of staff, the head should be responsible for the appointment, assignment, grading, appraisal, suspension and disciplinary action short of dismissal of all staff other than the senior post holders.

In conclusion, governing bodies have many key functions to perform. They do not have to become involved in the management of schools in order to discharge them. Indeed, there are sound reasons why such involvement is unwise and counterproductive. Heads largely influence whether the schools they run succeed or fall short of legitimate aspirations. They only have all the powers they need to discharge their responsibilities "by grace and favour" from the governing body. This is a wholly unsatisfactory situation. Modern management practices need to be brought to bear on institutions which have to operate in a modern environment.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

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