It is no more possible to lay down a blueprint for a happy governing body than for a happy family. All one can say is "This works for us," and leave others to pick out what may be applicable and useful. But when a governing body is comfortable within itself and its relationships with the headteacher and staff, the question "Who runs schools?" simply never arises.
Governing bodies can be unhappy for several reasons: a dictatorial head or chairman, personal and political antipathies, poor communications, or unfair division of labour. They can be flooded with more information than they can absorb, or denied access to anything more crucial than plans for sports day. They are overworked, or under-utilised, sidelined when important decisions are taken, used as special constables by the Department for Education to enforce legislation they may not understand or agree with. And they are not paid.
Happy governing bodies may vary in the way they operate and the extent of hands-on involvement they have in the school. Primary schools are not like secondaries, and their governing bodies work in very different ways. But a happy governing body shares certain common characteristics with a happy family: mutual trust, support and res-pect, good communications, sharing of the workload and collective decision-making, with a clear understanding on all sides of who has the final say. Like families, governing bodies can be demanding and critical in private, but always close ranks against attack from outside and never squabble in public. Liking each other helps, too.
I am chair of governors at a small village primary school. We have 150 pupils, six teaching staff, including the head, two classroom assistants, a secretary and a premises officer. The present governing body appointed the headteacher and three of the five teachers. This helps. We have chosen these people because they seemed likely to fit comfortably into the existing ethos. It is much easier to accept democratic decision-making if you know you are likely to be thinking along the same lines.
The head was new to the job, which meant we could all learn together, and she knew from the outset what the role and function of the governors was likely to be. It must be much more difficult to work with a head who has been in place for 20 years and remembers the good old days. The governors have all been appointed in the last six years, and knew what they were taking on, although the workload increases almost daily.
The head and one teacher serve on the governing body, as does one classroom assistant, who is also a parent of two children at school. Our school secretary is also clerk to the governors. Of the nine remaining governors, only one has never had a child at the school, and most of us have children still going through. We are obliged by law to have LEA-nominated governors, and co-opted members who represent the community, but there is nothing to prevent them being parents, too. We effectively choose our own governors, by encouraging enthusiastic parents to stand for election, suggesting candidates for the local political parties to nominate and co-opting people we know are willing to serve the school.
If battle-lines ever had to be drawn up between parents, staff and governors, many of us would find it difficult to determine which side of the barricades to be on. Governors outnumber the staff, and we are encouraged to make ourselves useful. As well as attending formal meetings and sub-committees, appoint-ing staff and serving on work-ing parties to draft policies, we are also involved in less conventional activities such as auditing accounts, running a toddler group, typing the prospectus, mending fences and painting walls. A head-count one morning last term showed nine governors present. In many schools this would signal a crisis. For us, it was just another Wednesday.
Most heads and governors would agree with the basic premise that governors are largely responsible for drafting, approving and reviewing policies and that the head and staff are charged with the day-to-day management of the school and implementation of agreed policies. The problem is one of monitoring. How can a governing body "check up" on the head, without being seen to do so? In a school such as ours, where governors have been actively involved in policy-making and are in school on a day-to-day basis, formal monitoring processes are redundant. We governors are an integral part of the whole process, rather than external watchdogs.
We have a governors' business meeting once a term, and a second one to which staff are invited to discuss the real educational issues. Newsletters to parents keep them informed of what is on our agenda and encourage comment. We meet socially and for training sessions as a group, with staff, and with staff and governors from other local schools. We laugh a lot.
Of course only a small primary school can operate like this. The scale of the operation is almost domestic. At a pinch, I could probably produce next year's budget intentions on the back of an envelope, counting on my fingers. I know the staff well, and a fair proportion of the parents and children.
There are pitfalls, of course. A school like ours could become self-congratulatory and cosy. OFSTED is focusing our minds wonderfully, and we are assembling our policies and working on financial and developmental planning for the benefit of the existing governors, and also to provide clear guidelines for our successors.
Because we all want the best for our children, and because we feel we have genuine ownership of the school and its policies, we are all prepared to work hard and support each other. But who is really in charge? Well, let's just say that if I were off sick for a fortnight, the school might not notice. I think they would miss the head.
Lindy Hardcastle is a governor in Leicestershire