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Undersung heroes;Governors;Millennium edition

It's hard and often thankless work, but governors have given a valuable voice to democracy in schools for six centuries, writes Joan Sallis

Governing bodies had already existed for 500 years by 1900. Although no schools were wholly maintained from public funds before 1870, those founded by church, charity, guild or wealth almost invariably had lay trustees.

The 1902 Education Act replaced the school boards set up by the 1870 Act with the now familiar local education authorities. These provided secondary schools and took over the old "board schools" and the secular curriculum of church schools.

Every secondary school had to have governors and every primary school managers (the difference in naming was to last 70-odd years). Formally they controlled the conduct of the school, overseeing curriculum, budget, and premises and appointing the headteacher, though in practice schools were largely controlled by the LEA, which appointed the managers and governors.

Schools could be grouped for the purpose, which was exploited by some large city authorities, resenting even this degree of power delegation. In the extreme case of Manchester, the grouping covered the whole city. All its schools were managed by what was in effect an education sub-committee of the council that met once a term. Grouping continued until 1999, but was much curtailed in 1980.

Greater school democracy could well have accompanied the reforms ushered in by the celebrated Butler Education Act of 1944, but the 1902 governance provisions were little changed. The local education authority still appointed all managers and governors in their own schools, with very general powers and little guidance on the sort of people to choose.

They tended to be "local worthies" or party activists (especially in urban areas), often with more status than hands-on roles.

Lost in memory were the governors of a charity school two centuries earlier who visited weekly, supervised the tailoring of school coats, doled out wool for mothers to knit stockings and got their own wives to make the caps! It is only fair to add, however, that in church schools, where responsibility for religious observance and building maintenance involved governors more, the role was often more significant.

Although there was no more major legislation until 1980, issues about community participation in schools fermented. The Plowden Report (1967) stressed the influence of home on learning. Parent and governor organisations sprang up.

Above all, the Taylor Committee (1977) proposed an equal partnership of LEA, parents, teachers and community in school governance. This would probably have been implemented immediately, and by the Labour government which set up the committee, but for the opposition of vested interests. As it was, a Conservative government, in 1980 (minimally) and in 1986 (almost fully), implemented the Taylor Report.

Governors (as all were called at last) in county and controlled schools were given a share in schools' strategic decisions; and governor training was instituted. Some saw governors as agents of a threatening agenda, and the messengers were blamed for messages they didn't write. Relationships suffered.

Governors' potential for most of the century had lain dormant. To realise it, two things were needed: the right people, which the 1986 Act largely achieved, and the delegation of real power to schools, with the Education Reform Act of 1988. Schools became largely self-managing, responsible for budget, staff and discipline.

Those choosing grant-maintained status had even more freedom, much of which Labour extended to other schools under the 1998 School Framework and Standards Act. This Act also underlined governors' responsibility for standards, and took them into such sensitive issues as home-school agreements and discipline, with performance-related pay round the corner.

Gradually the character of governors has changed. There are occasional sightings of the high-status, minimum-input, tea-and-biscuits governor - and one parent governor in Wales did tell me her only role was to make the tea for the meetings - but they are almost extinct.

Today's governors know it is hard and sometimes thankless work. They support their schools fiercely, but often sense that professionals resent their involvement. They lack quality back-up - clerking, uniformly good training, out-of-pocket expenses, time off without loss of earnings. Above all, perhaps, they need recognition of their legitimacy. For like MPs, councillors, non-executive company directors, charitable trustees, magistrates, and jurors, they are not experts but represent the stakeholders, and as such are an essential part of the infrastructure of a modern democracy.

Joan Sallis is a TES columnist and author of several books on school governors. She was a parent member of the Taylor Committee.

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