Many governors’ influence in their schools falls short of the model suggested by law, regulations, training, and the perceptions of politicians and the press.

One might conclude from studying these that we had our finger on the pulse of schools: making key appointments, framing the agenda, monitoring standards, setting targets, promoting good behaviour and occasionally providing an informal ‘fair trial’ for staff and students in trouble. The reality for many typical school governors falls ludicrously short of this fantasy despite their goodwill, their commitment and the skill of their trainers.

I look now at some realistic ways in which we might equip ourselves better and make governors’ roles more real.

Help from on high

But before tackling nuts and bolts issues something must be said about government responsibility. It is pointless our learning how to participate better if headteachers are not taught and tested on what we are supposed to be doing or haven’t been shown how to facilitate it.

There are schools which triumphantly rise to this challenge and I am lucky enough to serve in one, but I speak now for many less fortunate. There is too little in the process of preparation for headship and the school inspection system to ensure that heads play, at the very least, an enabling, and preferably an enthusiastic, role in empowering governors. The exceptions are those who show exceptional personal leadership. Experience of such a school gives me some clues:

  • The National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) is not strong on the governor dimension. The preparation of those who aspire to headship should emphasise the vital importance of governors, and give practical training in managing governor induction and subsequent involvement in school processes.  Governors’ organisations and governor trainers should have significant input.
  • Ofsted should be required to pay far more attention to the head’s performance as governing body facilitator, bearing in mind the lip service which is paid to governors’ contribution during inspections.
  • LEAs should be far more watchful and, where needed, more proactive in ensuring that schools equip governors for a meaningful role.

At school level

So often the life of a governing body limps from agenda to agenda and from meeting to meeting without ever tackling strategic issues. In spite of my strictures about government, Ofsted and LEAs, I don’t really go for conspiracy theories and don’t believe this is often deliberate.

Governors themselves often have no idea how they can gain the influence the law intended because they don’t have enough direct insight into school processes. So, in this issue I am thinking more about windows on the school than about agendas and informative literature and official papers. I believe deep-down familiarity with the school can produce as much wisdom as brilliant papers and discussion. There are people on most governing bodies who learn better that way. We mustn’t give up recruiting such governors on the grounds that schools need accountants, lawyers or architects, welcome though a few of these are.

Some governors’ character and time constraints make it a much better use of time for them to study policy papers and tables and graphs than to sit with children and be inspired by what the school is offering them. But others exist and we must not frighten them away. I suggest we need both types if governors are to make a real contribution.

Some of the ways in which schools try to give governors insights into what they are attempting to achieve are set out below.

Some ways in which schools try to give governors insights into what they are attempting to achieve

  • Giving each governor a subject area or department to take a special interest in.
    Attaching each governor to a class for interest and support.
  • Having regular off-timetable days illustrating school ideals in which a governor can participate with the children in outdoor and indoor sports and hobbies; healthy days; creative days; days devoted to fund-raising for a popular cause, all almost always featuring drama to make points, create empathy, release tensions, free anxieties (my hobby horse actually) or; with older children, studying some issues of contemporary significance through discussion, role play etc. Accompanying school outings is also good.
  • Welcoming governors to INSET days, especially if they include a lot of discussion about school aims.
  • Encouraging any governor with time to give a little regular help hearing children read.

 My school (primary) does 2, 3 4 and 5 but not 1. A secondary school I know well does 1, which is much in favour with Ofsted. But this is one system I have a slight worry about as it does take governors very near the borderline between governance and management and is apt to alarm teachers, especially if linked to points made during inspection. You need to be very sensitive, or else already have a trusting relationship with a teacher or group of teachers, to make it work happily.

It takes all kinds

I must repeat that there will be many governors who could never participate in ordinary activity on the scale this suggests, and those who can will often be older members of the community.

The former will tend to be the ones who contribute handsomely in other ways – an architect, an accountant, a lawyer, someone with business experience – and some will also absorb readily any insights they are given into school strategies and management. They are greatly valued, but often a school will accept their skills and still not know how to immerse them in its culture and values on a level which will guide and enrich their contribution and not discourage others. The importance of windows on the school must never be under-rated.