Academics now have hard evidence linking governors' ability with the performance of their school. Hazel Leslie reports
After 11 months' research, Peter Earley and two colleagues from the Management Development Centre at the Institute of Education have produced strong evidence that effective governing bodies make for effective schools, bringing substantial benefits, especially to the headteacher.
Although we often hear of problems between heads and governors, much more typical is one head's comment: "It helps me sleep at night because I know a decision isn't just mine. It's something I've shared with the governors, and that's very reassuring."
Earley, a parent governor himself at a co-ed comprehensive, sees the subject from a practical as well as academic viewpoint.
He says: "There's a lot of good work going on out there, but unfortunately the kind of stories that get media coverage are often negative. There's been a feeling that governing bodies do little but generate work for heads and don't really 'add value' to a school.
"Before this research, which is probably the most substantial piece done in this country, we had no hard evidence to the contrary."
Approximately 2,750 governors, chairs of governing bodies, heads and teachers from 672 primary, secondary and special schools were canvassed. A national questionnaire was followed by a smaller, more detailed study.
Nine schools with a "highly effective" governing body were selected. Scattered throughout the country, they represented a variety of phases and types, from inner cities to leafy suburbs.
"What struck us first," says Earley, "was that the heads of all these schools had a very positive attitude to the governing body. There was no difference between the way they operated with the governors and with the staff - their management style was open, honest, consultative and participative. All the research points to the important part the head plays in empowering governors.
"It was also interesting that governors who were perceived as being effective had often had some kind of training together, as a group - perhaps a facilitator to come in and look at how they were operating. They worked well as a team."
More local authorities now offer such training but Earley foresees difficulties if its popularity grows. "We need more resources for induction and training. I would like new governors to have some kind of training entitlement - say an induction voucher of pound;50, to spend as they choose. It would be some kind of recognition by the Government that governors are doing an important job."
A good chair is crucial: "As governing bodies begin to act more strategically, there's a danger of an elite policy group developing - splitting into a kind of A and B team," Earley says. "The schools that were working well had skilful chairs who were very aware of this possibility and used committees to ensure a good distribution of work."
Perhaps surprisingly, governors' commitment to the school was perceived by heads and teachers to be more important than special skills and expertise. The ideal governor was someone who would support the school, though not without qualification. A high proportion of governors were people who had some connection with the school and wanted to give something back.
But some local authority-appointed governors were criticised, being seen as only there to further their political careers.
It was felt that Government policy was making the delicate relationship between teachers and governors more problematic. "Lately there's been a greater emphasise on monitoring and evaluating," says Earley. "We're piling the responsibilities on, encouraging governors to see themselves as educational experts rather than lay people, which is where their strength lies - "a fresh air approach", as one head called it. The Government has to be very careful that it does not increasingly see governors as a kind of unpaid inspectorate to implement policies.
"Yet governors don't have to be in the classroom to make an impact on what happens there. For instance, they can make sure their school is a good employer - ask questions about recruitment and appointment strategies, and ensure a well-resourced induction programme and a system of staff development and review. These are the strategic areas governors should be involved in - not management decisions about the staffroom carpet or what food gets sold at lunchtime."
Governors emerge in the report as committed, well-educated, and representative of their local communities, despite some inner-city schools' ethnic under-representation. Earley points to at least one London borough which has tackled this very successfully.
Secondary governors tended to be more optimistic and confident than primary governors - perhaps because they are more likely to include professionals and co-opted governors from the business world.
But what about the disparity between the successful and the unsuccessful? Earley is worried and calls for a more proactive approach.
He says: "Where there is flexibility and a choice of governors, for example co-opted and local authority governors, the authorities should be looking at ways in which their best governors can serve where they are most needed.
"Our research consistently showed that schools in socially disadvantaged and inner-city areas were reporting lower levels of governor effectiveness and vacancies round the table. If an effective governing body can add so much, these schools are being doubly disadvantaged."
Improving the Effectiveness of School Governing Bodies, by Margaret Scanlon, Peter Earley and Jennifer Evans, is published by the Department for Education and Employment at pound;4.95. PO Box 5050 Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6QZ