The title of this article may seem far-fetched given the high profile of governor power in the past 25 years and the volume of paper – statutes, regulations, circulars, guides and magazine articles – drowning us.
Before the Taylor Committee investigated the whole moribund system in 1975, being a school governor was a role at best peripheral and at worst a joke. Successive governments tried to make a reality of stakeholder power for parents, staff and communities in almost non-stop legislation from 1980 to 2002. This was backed by a support system, nationally and in LEAs, employing many advisers, mostly excellent I have to say, while governors’ own associations and books and journals took up the task and proliferated.
Yet the question remains from governors’ problems in magazines, conferences and personal contact for this whole quarter century of liberating legislation: ‘Yes, that’s what it says, but how can we make it happen?’
One must at least entertain the possibility that there are factors in the system school governors work within making it hard for them to have real influence on school decisions, whatever the book says. If they know their roles, and nobody is deliberately trying to frustrate the fulfilment of those roles, what gaps in knowledge, processes or attitudes, constantly lead them to ask, ‘How do we make it happen?’
I don’t believe that anyone is trying to undermine the role of governors. I have never been a peddler of conspiracy theories, if only because human institutions are rarely that efficient!
Even if senior professionals did sometimes resist the untidy if not actually threatening processes of school democracy, it’s not something we can change quickly. If we could somehow identify the obstacles to making stakeholder influence real it could have a real effect on working processes, intervention techniques, training and guidance – not only for governors but for officers who deal with governors and give them information, for trainers and, above all, for heads.
I am not convinced that the preparation of aspirants to headship includes nearly enough on the governor dimension of running a school to make a reality of governor influence. One needs not only knowledge of the bare legal provisions but practical strategies to make a success of the stakeholder input into a professional process, and ample illustrative material to apply what the law says to the daily interaction of the parties. Even our excellent LEA governor training is not always specific enough on how to make things happen when regulations say they should.
Where things go wrong
How does partnership fail in practice? I need only review questions governors ask to see how the influence they should have can be rendered completely useless.
The simplest factor is a gap in their knowledge of what actually goes on, not deliberate concealment but no notion of what they don’t know. It isn’t on the agenda (who owns the agenda?), and how can we deal with problems if we don’t know they exist? Then there are issues between head and staff or staff governors and staff generally, such as whether teachers can approach governors directly if they think there is something we should be looking at, and are they representatives or delegates of the staff?
Teacher governors regularly question how much they dare say involving the internal workings of the school in the presence of ‘outsiders’. Yes, I know we are not complaints committees on how the head is doing the job internally and managing the staff. We must also not get drawn into issues which really are more suitable for resort to teachers’ unions. But there are tricky territorial issues we can’t ignore – like how elections for staff reps are managed, an issue raised frequently with me I can assure you – and occasionally I don’t like what I hear.
Can ‘community’ governors contribute usefully on real issues between school and community? Is there ever a place on the agenda where this could happen? Is there space for an LEA appointed governor to contribute something of general concern in the service?
Often governors feel they don’t know enough to fulfil properly their roles in general policies.
How do they know what curriculum materials exist when they are ‘attached’ to a subject area – often a purely nominal role? Can they deal well with an exclusion appeal if they have only a perfunctory acquaintance with behaviour policies? How well can they contribute to staff appointments (if they are lucky enough to have any involvement at all!) not knowing roughly how teaching is organised among the staff and what is expected of them?
Do governors ever discuss the agenda and what ought to be on it in any meaningful way? How much real involvement does the chair have in this and can other members make suggestions?
There are always one-off issues that even the best governing body can’t tackle. But increasingly common frustrations and failures in fulfilling our role call for more ownership of the real agenda.
Not just what goes on the page posted to us but regular opportunities to discuss all areas of school life, to include even one governor in certain activities (or just information about them) on which they can report – a governors’ programme which ensures no important aspect of school life gets sidelined.
I mentioned one theme which comes up worryingly often, and that is how staff governors get elected, the process and safeguards, and how much guidance they are given about their role once elected – something regularly asked from even the most open and governor friendly schools.
I will concentrate in the coming school year on some of the simple ways in which real governor input can be improved.