Governors do not loom large in any research on school effectiveness. Peter Earley suggests how that could change. Governors and governing bodies are noticeably absent from the lists of features that make schools more effective. The most recent summary of research findings, for example, mentions 11 complementary factors for school effectiveness and improvement. But there is not a single mention of governors. The nearest we get is reference to the importance of partnerships and support - even this is primarily referring to parents and the wider community.
Why is this? Is it because governors have little or no part to play or, as seems more likely, because school effectiveness researchers simply have not considered them? And does this in itself reflect the low level of expectation attached to the governing body's role?
Last spring the (then) Department for Education, with Banking Information Services and the Office For Standards in Education, published a most useful pamphlet called Governing Bodies and Effective Schools. This told us - among other things - that the main roles of the governing body were to provide a strategic overview, to act as a critical friend and to ensure accountability. A recent report from OFSTED and the Audit Commission talks of the main roles of the governing body as steering, monitoring, accountability, support and acting in an executive capacity.
But is this asking governing bodies to run when research has shown that many of them still have to learn how to walk? Is it realistic to expect a part-time, volunteer, predominantly lay body to take on all these responsibilities?
Last spring's DFE pamphlet mentioned six factors central to governing body effectiveness:
* working as a team
* good relationship with the head
* effective time management and delegation
* effective meetings
* knowing the school
* training and development.
Recent research conducted at the National Foundation for Educational Research pointed to the importance of all these and highlighted the basic competences which have to be met for governing bodies to achieve minimal effectiveness. Such areas as the conduct of meetings, clerking, effective chairing, clarity of purpose of committees and the regular attendance and commitment of members are crucial and, as the research showed, should not be taken for granted. Indeed, without these it is impossible to achieve some of what might be called the "higher order" (and more difficult) functions of governing bodies, such as monitoring and evaluating progress.
The last factor in the checklist, training and development, is crucial and warrants more detailed attention. Whole governing body training, which some LEAs and trainers have offered for a number of years, is important. Governing bodies appear to be more aware than ever of the need to evaluate their own effectiveness.
Certainly, one of the offshoots of an OFSTED inspection is that it encourages an esprit de corps among the governors (and the school). Similarly, it will be interesting to see the extent to which post-OFSTED action plans (which are the responsibility of the governing bodies) involve governors in a more meaningful and direct way in school improvement.
Some governing bodies, often with support from their LEAs, have utilised Governing Bodies and Effective Schools to look at how they operate - they are using it as a self-evaluation tool or audit, encouraging them to address issues of their own effectiveness and how they can contribute most effectively to their schools.
For many governing bodies, the notion of acting as a "critical friend" seems to be a difficult role to perform. There appears to be a need for governing bodies to move beyond support (which research has shown most see as their main function and do well) to be able to offer an informed and constructively critical approach to the school and its management.
This re-emphasis or focus on whole governing body training is highlighting the real impact which training can have on performance. How often do governors return from courses (and evaluations find these, in the main, to be highly regarded) where they are unable to put in practice what they have learnt?
This should not be seen, however, as a call to abolish all centralised training in favour of training in team-building, effective meetings and other such matters. Governors need to meet other governors to find out what goes on outside their own governing body. But perhaps there is a need to think about how training can best improve their effectiveness to act as a collectivity.
This is all the more important since funds for governor training have been devolved to schools (see Joan Sallis below). There are now real concerns that this will significantly reduce the amount undertaken and the support local authorities are able to offer. Given the choice, are governing bodies going to spend such funds on staff training or other areas deemed more important than their own individual and collective development?
It is possible to have an effective school without an effective governing body, but at what cost to that school's potential?
Effective governing bodies by definition are those that contribute, directly or indirectly, to improving the quality of teaching and learning. Those schools whose governing bodies are ineffective are unable to make good use of that resource and, as such, are disadvantaged.
Training is not the universal panacea, but a greater emphasis on performance enhancement and whole governing body training might help many operate more effectively. Whether governing bodies will use some of their limited time and resources in this way - indeed, whether some governors would even turn up - is, of course, another matter.
Peter Earley works at the management development centre, University of London Institute of Education.