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Words of advice for newcomers

The Department for Education and Employment booklet, Guidance on Good Governance is an excellent, clear, concise guide to good practice for governors and heads, produced at just the right time.

With so many new governors being elected and appointed this term, this is an opportune moment for governing bodies to be reviewing the composition and terms of reference of their committees and the way their business is conducted. It has been drawn up by a working party of representatives of all the main governor organisations, heads' associations and of grant maintained and voluntary aided schools.

Deliberately not called a "code of conduct", the booklet has no legal force and is meant to be used in conjunction with the appropriate Guide to the Law for different types of school. By careful use of the words "must", "should" and "may" it distinguishes between legal requirements, recommended good practice and helpful suggestions. Referring to the principles of public life identified in the Nolan Report, it emphasises the need for integrity, accountability and openness.

The division of responsibility between the governing body and the head under such headings as curriculum, staffing, reporting to parents and finance are clearly defined; the implications of collective responsibility are explored; and the responsibility of the head to provide information, advice and recommendations is emphasised. Chairmen are reminded of the strict definition of "urgent" matters on which they may act without prior reference to other governors.

Other areas covered are the conduct of meetings, handling complaints and the establishment and function of committees and working parties. Some governors may be deterred by the formality of some of these procedures, but it is crucial to have procedures in place and committees on standby for complaints, exclusions, staff discipline etc, even if you think you will never need them. Making them up on the hoof in a crisis will inevitably lead to mistakes.

I do have one or two reservations. The use of the word "chairman" throughout may irritate some. Personally, I prefer it to being called a chair, and to the recent new abomination, "chairholder". I also winced a little at the injunction to governors not to promote the interests of their own children to the detriment of others'. This seems to point a finger at parent governors and may be used to perpetuate the practice in some schools of excluding them from staffing panels and complaints committees. It is suggested that heads formulate policies for governor approval and amendment. Many governors find it difficult to challenge a completed policy. They should be involved in drafting and be given real choices.

These are minor points, and do not detract from the value of the guidance, My main concern is about distribution. Obviously this booklet cannot be sent to every individual governor, but it would be easy for an ineffective or dictatorial chairman to "lose" it.

There are still heads who regularly deliver their termly report verbally at meetings, focusing largely on the success of the football team, and chairmen who spend meetings glibly reporting on action taken by them since the last meeting without reference to the other governors. Will they use this booklet to draw attention to their shortcomings? I think not.

I would urge clerks or governor trainers to make this available to new governors, and hope that some of them will be brave enough to challenge the bad practice that lingers on in some schools.

Single or bulk copies available from Department for Education and Employment Publications Centre, PO Box 6927. London E3 3NZ. 0171 510 0150.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the East Midlands.

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