Are governors a dying breed?

School governor, once the prestigious title of many a proud parent, has lost its allure. So much so that this autumn many schools could have trouble getting anyone to take on this time-consuming labour of love. By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
Until not so very long ago, being a school governor seemed a glamorous job to many parents. With the new powers given to governing bodies in Eighties legislation, many people were keen to become governors, believing that they could not only be of service to the local community but become more involved in their children's education, too.

Although some still cherish this belief, for increasing numbers, the educational upheavals of the past few years - the battles with the curriculum and testing, the cuts and the teacher redundancies - are causing them pause for thought: is this really a job they want to do?

As a result, schools could face a severe shortage of governors this autumn. In July, about a third of existing governors reach the end of their four- year term of office. Just over half of them are likely to stand for a further term, leaving 60,000 or more vacancies, according to a survey commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment.

Last week, all schools, libraries and other public-information centres received the department's recruitment leaflets and posters, put together with help from the main governor associations. Now it is up to schools and local authorities to do the best they can to persuade people to sign up.

Hadrian Southorn, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, is among those who fear that there could be serious problems filling the vacancies. "It is going to be difficult because the time commitment and workload have increased, even since the last elections, four years ago."

Ironically, the higher profile that school governors have achieved in recent years - through the media and through word of mouth - could put people off because they have a better idea of what is really involved. The days when being a governor involved little more than a few visits to the school, a friendly nod to the headteacher and selling a handful of tickets for the tombola stall are long gone. Now most governors are expected to attend six main meetings a year - usually lasting three hours or more and all involving preparation and paperwork - as well as at least three meetings of a sub-committee, such as personnel or curriculum. On top of this there are disciplinary hearings, exclusion appeals and interviews for a new head or deputy.

During the past few years, governing bodies have assumed new areas of responsibility and accountability, such as Ofsted inspections, upkeep of premises, and health and safety regulations, as well as having to oversee changes in the curriculum and manage ever-diminishing budgets.

"When they realise the responsibilities, many people will simply not be willing to become unpaid civil servants," Mr Southorn says.

As Sue Nicholson, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, points out, there is perhaps no other area in which members of the public have to make such crucial decisions. "The job of governor is almost getting beyond lay people," she says. Ms Nicholson believes governor training - not a legal requirement at present - is essential and could attract people to the job if they felt they were going to get some back-up and support. Others argue that compulsory training may just put more people off.

Some areas and some schools have more problems than others when it comes to filling vacancies. Governors are generally middle class and white, so a school with a good reputation, attended by children from middle-class families, will not have too much difficulty. But there are deprived, inner- city areas where schools are already struggling to get parents to come forward. The few who do volunteer often resign before their four-year term is up.

Birmingham has one of the highest percentages of governor vacancies in the country, with 862 out of 5,260 places - or 16.3 per cent - unfilled. Almost half of these vacancies are for local authority-appointed governors; the remainder are parent and co-opted governors.

Primary schools find it particularly difficult to attract co-opted governors, who come from the local community and businesses, because primary schools are often perceived as less prestigious than their secondary counterparts.

Nargis Rashid, co-ordinator of governor training for Birmingham Education Authority, believes much more should be done to attract members of ethnic minorities to be governors, even if it means providing interpreters at meetings.

Pat Petch, vice-chair of the National Governors' Council and chair of governors at Stanley Junior School, Middlesex, says offering expenses for baby-sitting may persuade some people to come forward.

The job can, of course, offer great rewards, particularly for the governor whose school begins to show a marked improvement and produces better exam results. But persuading potential candidates of this was dealt a blow in last year's swingeing cuts, which forced schools to make teachers redundant.

"People are telling me: `I didn't become a governor to sack teachers'," says David Smith, chair of Action for Governors' Information and Training. Simon Goodenough, chair of the National Governors' Council, has heard the same story: "Governors are not having the time to do what they would like, which is get to know the school better, monitor its progress and look at ways of improving the quality of education. Instead, they are spending too much time with their heads in their hands, worried sick about the school's budget and how they can make ends meet without having to sack teachers and increase the number of pupils in each class."

GOVERNORS: THE FACTS

The governing body ranges in size from nine in a small primary school to about 19 in a large comprehensive. Generally, it consists of 25 per cent parents, 25 per cent governors appointed by the local education authority (except in grant-maintained schools), one or two teachers, the head (if he or she chooses) and 33 per cent co-opted from local businesses or community organisations.

Functions

deciding, in broad terms, how the school should be run

helping the head to establish aims and policies

deciding how the school budget should be allocated

ensuring the national curriculum and religious education are taught

appointing, promoting, supporting and disciplining staff

acting as a link between the school and the local community

drawing up an Action Plan following an Ofsted inspection, and monitoring how it is put into practice.

THE DOWNSIDE

`At times, I'm in despair'

Peter Baker (left), bursar and Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, became a governor at his children's primary school because, as a former state school head, he felt he had experience to offer. Now in his fourth year as chair of governors at Wheatley Park School, a large comprehensive in Oxfordshire, his term of office comes to an end this summer: he is considering whether to stand for a second term - "and there is much within me that says no".

Mr Baker puts in about seven hours a week. But in the past two years, the job has grown increasingly fraught, largely because of budget crises. "We are trying to do ever more with less. We are now faced with pounds 235,000 less than we had two years ago - and that's with a bigger school, and excluding inflation."

Last year, Wheatley Park School took a trenchant line over the cuts. Although it managed to retain its staff, it spent all its reserves, and failed to persuade the Government to provide more money. This year's cuts make it impossible for Wheatley Park to avoid redundancies. Latin, which the school prides itself on, may have to go; so may German, A-level support studies and some religious and physical education.

"As governors, we expected to be able to improve the school, to build on what was valuable - not pull it apart, like the Government's hatchet men. We did not come here to sack staff and balance ever-shrinking budgets.

"After fighting so hard last year, we are becoming battle-weary. There are times when I am in despair."

THE UPSIDE

`We've turned the corner'

Her first visit to the Hammersmith School, a comprehensive serving a deprived estate in west London, left Viv Bird (left) feeling angry. She had gone in her capacity as community literacy worker, hoping to collaborate with the school, but she was overwhelmed by the noisy, disorganised environment, the lack of direction and the disruptive pupils.

In 1994, the school was declared to be failing. Financial management was withdrawn from the governing body and eight new governors, appointed by the local education authority, were drafted in. Ms Bird, by then a senior research officer at the National Literacy Trust, was among them.

She became chair of the governors' action-plan committee, responsible for monitoring ways in which the school could improve. In April 1995, a new head was appointed and, under him, the governors assumed a supportive role. The school changed its name to Phoenix High School and is now slowly rising.

"There is still a way to go, but I think we've turned the corner," says Ms Bird. "Lessons are better quality, and you can actually see the children learning. It is too early for an improvement in exam results, but that will come."

In an average week, Ms Bird spends one afternoon at the school and attends one evening meeting. "I am not a typical governor in that I put a lot of time in," she says, acknowledging that a part-time job and teenage children make this easier for her than for some parents.

"I see it as a contribution to the quality of education and I believe children deserve a good school."

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