Education: Not just a rubber stamp: School governors have a tricky job, says Donald MacLeod. Their responsibilities are growing but the involvement they are allowed varies

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The Independent Online
ROGER OGLE admits he was unnerved at first. He found himself in a nightmare that haunts many governors - being personally sued by local residents who were in dispute with the school.

In the event, Mr Ogle, chairman of the governors at a Swindon school, won his case over the use of a floodlit, all-weather sports pitch, and costs estimated at more than pounds 30,000 were awarded against the residents who had brought it.

He had taken the precaution of securing written assurances from Wiltshire County Council, which was also being sued, that he would not be personally responsible for damages or costs. Nevertheless, Mr Ogle is a self-employed publisher and the six-day court case took up a lot of his time. He was prompted to remark afterwards: 'Who would be a governor? We are getting more and more responsibilities. Some people might ask, why take it on?'

However, he has no doubts about carrying on himself. He has chaired the governing body of Greendown Community School since before it opened in 1985; he is a co-opted governor now, and he is seeking election as a parent governor since his daughter has become a pupil. But he admits that the school and the governors have been under considerable pressure for more than a year.

He had also found himself alongside the teachers in having to take flak from the local press over Greendown's first GCSE results. This year the results improved, with girls doing better than the national average, although the boys' results were still disappointing, he says. In the meantime, the governors had worked with the headteacher and senior staff to overhaul the way staff and pupil performance is monitored.

Mr Ogle is frank about the governors' performance. 'I don't think we did as much as we could have. We should have gone into the school more often and become more closely associated. Not enough governors spent enough time encouraging people and getting to know the school. It is often the local authority nominees who don't spend so much time on governors' duties.' Until recently the school and its governors had been too complacent about involving parents but they have now embarked on a series of meetings for each year group, he adds.

It is precisely when things are not going smoothly at a school that the role of the governors becomes important, says Michael Creese, of Action for Governors' Information and Training. In a staffing matter the headteacher is less exposed when appointments have been made by both head and governors. In conflicts with the local community the governors should represent the school to the outside world. They should also represent parents.

But the role that headteachers are allowing governors to play in practice varies considerably depending on the school and what is on the agenda, as Mr Creese has found through his research in Suffolk. If it is finance, the headteacher may be delighted to receive help and advice; if it is the curriculum, governors are likely to encounter 'no trespassing' signals. As one headteacher told Mr Creese: 'The governors don't see their place in curriculum development and I'm not overly disappointed about that.'

Governors disagree. Mr Creese, a former headteacher, says there is a strong feeling among governors that they are inadequately informed about the curriculum. That is reflected in their lack of involvement in preparing school development plans, which are very important in improving performance.

Eric Benton, head of Gorseland Primary School in Ipswich, is in favour of governors learning more about what goes on in the classroom, but he does not want them debating reading methods or maths schemes. 'We have a curriculum working group for governors to learn about the methods used to deliver the national curriculum and support teachers in their work; then when we ask for more money for educational supplies and services they will be more willing to give it,' he says.

Governors can ease a headteacher's burden and provide a check on his or her activities, says Mr Benton. His choice of words is revealing, however. 'You have always got people behind the scenes who have to rubber-stamp what you do. It makes you look more deeply into what you are doing. It is probably working as the Government intended, to prevent extremist views coming straight through to the children.'

Mr Creese identifies three styles of governing body. A small minority has failed to take on board its new responsibilities and is delegating decisions to the headteacher. If he or she is unwilling to communicate with the governing body and let it play a role in the life of the school, it might be forced into this stance.

The vast majority of governing bodies see their job as advisory and supportive. 'The governors are genuinely interested in the school and wish to promote its best interests. They see the professionals running the school effectively and are unwilling or unable to develop the monitoring functions of the governing body or to develop a working partnership with the staff. Policy decisions are taken by the headteacher, with or without staff consultation, and are rubber-stamped by the governing body,' Mr Creese says.

He says that only small numbers of governing bodies have established genuine working partnerships with headteacher and staff in which they discuss a range of issues such as the school development plan. In these schools governors are involved in working groups before draft papers come up for decision. They visit classrooms frequently and are well known by the teachers.

(Photograph omitted)