Susannah Kirkman reports on the response to the recent consultation paper on reforming governing bodies
The Government's suggestions for reform of governing bodies, outlined in a consultation paper published last month, have drawn a generally favourable response from representatives of headteachers, governors and local authorities. But many also believe that the Government's initiatives, such as introducing parents on to local authority education committees, do not go far enough.
"The more the Government can involve parents the better," says Pat Petch, chairwoman of the National Governors Council. "But many governing bodies feel that governors should be represented on education committees, too."
There is also criticism that the proposed new powers of councils to remove ineffectual governors are too weak. "It's not good enough to say that advice will be given to appointing authorities on the removal of governors," says David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "If members of governing bodies are clearly unsuitable because of their conduct, there should be a more emphatic statement on how they can be removed."
Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, agrees. "When an authority appoints governors, it should have the power to remove them whenever necessary," he says. "If you're trying to improve schools, it's essential to able to replace dozy authority governors with some who have experience."
Although Pat Petch says that governors are rarely so incompetent that they have to be replaced, she does believe that the new guidelines will not deal with a small group of governors who cause great resentment by attending the meetings they should, but always leaving early.
David Hart thinks the Government should also be more explicit in its definitions of the respective roles of headteachers and governors. "Heads have an overwhelmingly crucial role to play in the success of schools but this paper ducks the issue," he says. He disagrees with the suggestion that it is the governing body's function to draw up and implement a school's strategic plan and to manage the budget; these are the head's responsibilities, in consultation with the governing body, he insists.
Monitoring strategic plans should be left to local authorities, which should then report to the governors, says Graham Lane, who also rejects the idea that governors determine the ethos of the school. "A school's atmosphere is far more influenced by the headteacher and staff," he says.
He is adamant that appointing the headteacher should no longer be the responsibility solely of governors. He would like to see the task shared among governors, the authority and experienced personnel managers.
"The appointment of a headteacher is crucial to a school and crucial to raising standards, yet many governors may only sit on a panel like this once in their lives," he says. "There is a tendency for some governing bodies simply to appoint existing deputy heads."
Pat Petch welcomes the proposed new job description for governors. She thinks that the focus on standards and achievement could attract many new recruits who will see governorship as a real chance to improve schools.
There are conflicting views on the changes in the composition of governing bodies. Diocesan boards are likely to be very critical of the proposal that foundation governors should have a majority of just one on the governing bodies of aided schools, instead of two or three, as at present. "When churches originally agreed to hand over all their school buildings and premises to the Government, in return they were assured of a majority of at least two on governing bodies," says a representative from one diocesan board. "One vote is minimal benefit for continuing to provide 15 per cent of aided schools' capital funding."
Some people fear that the new governing bodies could be too cumbersome once the the extra parent governors and mandatory non-teaching governors are introduced. David Hart warns of a proliferation of sub-committees and a heavier work-load which could deter new governors from coming forward.
There is concern, too, that schools in some areas may find it difficult to recruit enough parent governors. "Extra parent governors are not as important as making sure that existing governors communicate properly with parents, " says Caroline Egerton, chair of the governors at Latchmere Infants' and Junior School in Kingston upon Thames.
But there is general approval for the compulsory inclusion of the headteacher on the governing body, as this is already seen to be working well in many schools and brings county schools into line with grant-maintained schools.
The idea that all teacher-governors must be elected gets full marks, too. In the past, some governing bodies have been skewed by a preponderance of teachers, sometimes co-opted at the head's behest. In future, co-opted governors at community and foundation schools must have community or business interests.
The standardisation of all terms of office to four years is welcomed, but there is scepticism about the notion that teacher and parent governors should serve out their terms, even if they or, in the case of parent governors, their children, leave the school. "It's a recipe for trouble," says Graham Lane. "Governors must be properly accountable to the groups they are supposed to represent."
On the plus side, Pat Petch thinks that most governors will be delighted at the streamlining of the laws and rules applicable to governing bodies. "The rules need to be explicit and they must all be in one place so that everyone knows where to find them," she says. The Government wants to replace the current articles of government with legislation that will define the powers, duties and functions of governors.
Whatever their individual gripes, most of the groups concerned with the proposals to reform governing bodies seem impressed by the Government's readiness to listen. Governors' associations have been specifically asked to encourage local feedback.
But to many governors on the ground, the new proposals seem frustratingly irrelevant. According to Caroline Egerton: "The emphasis on the function of governing bodies in raising standards is excellent, but at the moment, a great deal of governors' time is spent trying to sort out inadequate and unpredictable budgets, poor premises and huge class sizes."
Consultation on the paper "Framework for the Organisation of Schools" closes on October 7. Comments should be sent to Paul Day, School Framework Division, Area 3F, DFEE, Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT