Last week I was speaking at a conference for parent governors in a county which gives governing bodies first class support, and has won an award for exceptional service.
At the end, I referred in passing to some aspect of our work which would never be the same again. Immediately the room was electric. What were these new rules? When did they come out?
Their excellent governor support manager reassured them: "Your summaries of the latest regulations are in the post." But they wanted instant information.
I only got my own final instalment a few days later from an equally governor-friendly LEA, which had not had it long themselves. But I had not been able to wait that long. I had had to spend all those blistering August days hunched over the Department for Education and Skills' website, squeezing out the last of the dreaded new regulations. I was committed to write a full summary for the 2004 Governors' Yearbook, and although five new statutory instruments have now become law I would say only a small proportion of governors yet know the implications.Yet these are the most important changes since the reforms of the 1980s.
Governors will have been told that from September 2003 they will be embarking on a reconstitution of their governing bodies which has to be completed over three years or so, during which time they will choose their size (between nine to 20 members, regardless of school size) and - within prescribed proportions - their balance of different interests. Combining the two requires some thoughtful debate. Sounds leisurely enough.
So where is the urgency? The urgency is that some later regulations on how we work together, published only recently, radically changed from September 1 the choices we have to make. They are changes which affect profoundly the sort of governing body we want to be. The effect can only be predicted when we have thought about size and composition. Only when we have our new constitutions will we fully feel the effect of our choices. The smaller the governing body, the greater the potential impact.
What size shall we choose? There will be heads, not the wisest, perhaps, who will want us to downsize in some middle-sized and large schools. The arguments will be: less struggling to get new governors; less paper to send out; less trouble getting agreement; crisper business altogether.
But under the new regulations we can now delegate almost every decision to a committee and all but a very short list to an individual (the head or chair, a bursar, or even a governor with some expertise). We do not have to delegate anything, but there will be pressures.
In a governing body of nine a committee could well consist of only three governors, and these could in theory be all parents, or head and teacher and one other, or two LEA and one co-optee, and so on. There are obvious dangers of power falling into too few hands, of A and B teams, of individual governors not feeling fully informed, and of whole groups perhaps feeling inadequately represented. The quorum is now to be 50 per cent for all decisions, instead of one-third for everyday decisions and two-thirds for really strategic ones. This alone brings dangers.
That brings the question of balance into the limelight, and a governing body might begin by thinking of how many staff governors they want. Many governing bodies value highly having a support staff member. Many feel that one teacher governor is too isolated. You can only have the head, two teachers and one support staff if you have a total of at least 12, and unless you went bigger still you could not afford more than the minimum of two co-optees, which you might feel you then needed - to get a balance between governors from the school and LEA and co-opted members from outside. When you have your ideal balance, you have your ideal size.
I have not yet said anything about the staffing regulations. These put staff appointments, discipline, dismissal and grievance in the same permissive framework of delegation, and there are no longer statutory committees on discipline (or pupil exclusion reviews).
But the guidance that accompanies the regulations makes it clear that the Government intends governing bodies to delegate to the head the appointment and dismissal processes for teachers below deputy head level. This applies immediately unless there are unusual circumstances, such as a head undergoing a disciplinary process or a school in special measures.
Six months' grace is given where circumstances require it, such as a new head with no experience of staffing - and in these cases existing procedures can be continued until April.
Although this appears in the guidance, not the regulations, it is made very clear that this is what the Government intends. This change was the feature which so shocked some of the governors I was speaking to last week. They were quick to point out the danger of claims of unfairness when there were internal candidates, and thus the wisdom of having an independent presence, if only to protect the head. They also recognised the anomaly of the governing body remaining responsible if anything went wrong, especially in voluntary-aided schools where they were the employers. I think it is very bad news for teachers everywhere, and that it also robs governors of a valuable experience in developing their understanding of the school.
A curious aspect of the regulations on collaboration and federation of governing bodies has already been pointed out (TES, September 12) whereby governors could be involved in the sacking of another school's teacher. But there are also other aspects of these regulations that astonish me.
The size range for a governing body of a federation, for instance, is just the same as for single schools, and it would be possible for several federated schools to have a governing body which did not include their own head.
But I am particularly concerned about the loss of direct commitment and accountability to their communities when schools decide to federate, and the tedium of having to repeat school-specific processes like budgets, annual reports to parents, and home-school agreements. Boredom reduces efficiency. I hope that not many take up the option. Apart from the extreme case of teacher dismissal, it will surely also be very difficult to deal sensitively in such a large forum with pupil exclusions, teacher incompetence or misbehaviour, or one school in the group which has had a bad inspection report or poor results. Anyway, this is something else we are not obliged to do.
This is presented as a process of setting governing bodies free from red tape and giving them more freedom to run their own show. I see it more as a simple choice between two different visions of school governance. One is of a small group which is brisk, business-like, and makes decisions quickly.
The other is of a looser association of contributing groups which values debate, combats power-drift and takes accountability seriously. I am unashamedly for the second. Of course it is important to be businesslike.
But a school is not a business, and its success depends on the co-operation and goodwill of all stakeholders and their sense of having had a fair hearing and a fair deal.
The School Governors' Yearbook 2004 is produced in association with The TES by Adamson Books, Akeman House, High Street, Stretham, Ely, Cambs. CB6 3JQ; price pound;7.95 plus pound;1.25 postage; Statutory Instruments 2003 348 (Constitution); 2003 1377 (Procedures); 2003 1603 (Staffing)
FREE TO BE UNACCOUNTABLE?
By September 2006
* All governing bodies to be reconstituted, with between nine and 20 members.
* Governing body officers to be elected for one, two, three or four years;
* Three meetings to be held a year;
* 50 per cent quorum needed for decisions. Committees set quorum, must be more than three;
* Almost all decisions may be delegated to a committee and most to an individual. Governors remain legally responsible;
* Governing body or committee elects chair;
* Governing body appoints clerks to all committees - head not eligible;
* Statutory committees on pupil exclusions and staff discipline abolished;
* Governing body to delegate staff appointments below deputy and also all staff dismissals to head. Governors remain legally responsible.