Why better training is no panacea

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Governor organisations meet this week to discuss a training framework. But, argues Emma Westcott, the state also needs to address more fundamental problems

IN COMMON with most governors, I have experienced some dire training sessions (as well as some excellent ones). I therefore should be pleased that the Government will soon consult on how to take governor training forward. Why, then, does the announcement give me a slight sinking feeling?

The consultation looks set to lead to an accreditation scheme for trainers. If this heralds a renewed Department for Education and Employment focus on support for effective governance, that would be welcome. But simply introducing an "official" trainer status does not amount to a real investment in governance.

Admittedly, it seems reasonable that those who train governors should be accountable for the quality of their programmes. Governors should feel confident that training will be effective.

But governors don't perceive the quality of training as the main obstacle to effective governance. We are more exercised by the urgent need for someone to get a grip on the role of governors. We want a role that both allows us to be effective and which matches our skills, lay status, and available time.

This is a tall order, not least because governors vary considerably in terms of skills, perceptions of the role, and their other commitments.

Surprisingly, no one at the Department for Education and Employment is responsible for keeping an overview of governors' duties. This explains the emergence of policies which have a considerable impact on governors but which do not appear to reflect the role which unpaid volunteers are willing or able to play in schools.

My secondary governing body is just realising the time involved in the new discipline committee arrangements. We have still yet to absorb what will be required of us as a result of the Government's proposals on performance related pay for teachers.

Undoubtedly inclusion and performance management are key parts of a school's success, and governors should be involved in both. But policy-

makers should ask: what role is it reasonable, and appropriate, for governors to play?

Governors are volunteers, and, because of this, there appears to be no political will to make trainng a condition of service. (Although this hasn't stopped the Government elsewhere in the public sector - magistrates, also volunteers, have had to undertake training since the 1970s.)

It follows that improvements to training, though welcome, will only have a limited impact. If we want a step-change in governor effectiveness, we require cultural, as well as structural change. Support for effective governance includes high-quality training, but it is much more than that.

A useful hypothetical question to consider might be: if there was an "Investors in People"-style award for looking after governors properly, what would it look like? It would not certainly begin and end with the accreditation of governor trainers.

Before I gave the award to the DFEE, I would expect to see:

Consultation periods that enabled governing bodies to respond to policy proposals;

The department keeping accurate data on its vast volunteer workforce (at present, it does not even know how many governors there should be, or are);

Evidence of coherence and co-ordination between policy teams that have an impact on governors' work.

If the DFEE was an "Investor in Governors", it would make governors real partners in raising standards. The development of every new policy would involve asking two questions: "What do governors need to know about this?" and "what is the best means of discussing it with them?"

Education authorities would also need to change to qualify for such an award. They would need to demonstrate responsiveness, awareness, and a commitment to genuine partnership.

A sceptic might suggest that national policy-makers set great store by the quality of governor training because it is one of the few areas of school governance over which they have leverage. They cannot guarantee the supply of volunteers, nor depend upon governors staying the course, or getting the role right - although it is heartening that most do.

But they can, with political will, do more to make governance manageable and attractive. They should start by exploring with governors what it would mean to become a genuine investor in governors.

Emma Westcott is a governor of two schools, and an education policy officer with the Local Government Association. She writes here in a personal capacity

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