Whose watchdog?

29th March 1996 at 00:00
It is fortuitous that schools minister Robin Squire chose to launch his department's governor recruitment campaign in the week that the results of The TES Annual Report Award are announced (TES2, page 8). The coincidence underlines a dissonance between what the minister thinks new governors ought to be signing up for and what their annual reports to parents suggest they actually do.

In making his pitch for the 60,000 governors the department estimates will be needed as replacements this autumn, Mr Squire expressed his confidence that they "fill a vital role in the conduct of their schools and in accounting to parents and the wider community for the school's wider performance". This is in spite of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools' report last year that "governing bodies are, on occasion and for a variety of reasons, deflected from discharging fully their key function of strategic direction. In plain language, this means asking relatively simple questions: about standards of pupil achievement; about behaviour and attendance; about homework, attitudes and expectations."

In this year's report, HMCI Chris Woodhead criticised some governors for failing to tackle incompetence. "In a small but worrying proportion of schools governors have been unprepared to deal with serious weaknesses."

Of course the 900 or so annual reports entered by schools for The TES award are not necessarily typical, but they are likely to be sent in by governing bodies which take their duty to account to parents more seriously than the average.

If they are anything to go by, HMCI is indeed right that few governors are asking his "relatively simple questions" - or if they are, they are not letting on to parents. More common are comments about funding cuts, suggesting that governors see holding central and local government to account as a rather more important priority than raising staff expectations.

It is possible to see in this evidence that governing bodies are not up to the job. But it is equally conceivable that they simply choose to interpret their role in a different, more supportive way or that because of the siege mentality induced in schools by the continuous public criticism of teachers and teaching, some "simple" questions have become less askable and the governors' watchdog role more difficult.

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