Education: 'You join to help, not to sack teachers': It's management on the cheap and the workload is 'fearsome'. School governors talk to Maureen O'Connor and one explains why he quit

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The Independent Online
School governors, once regarded as the spearhead of the Government's policy of giving power to parents, are becoming disillusioned. Where they can defy the Government, on opting out and school tests, they are taking their chances. Where they are being asked to reduce budgets and sack teachers, they complain they were appointed to serve, not to implement funding cuts.

'We find that as amateurs we are making decisions about the livelihood and careers of professionals,' says Keith Beck, management expert, parent and primary school governor. He finds that his interest in helping his children's school has been transformed by recent legislation. His enthusiasm has been dented not only by the workload, which he says is enormous, but by the stress of trying to run a school in a competitive climate. This means, he says, that the school is producing a glossy brochure to 'sell' its places while making teachers redundant.

Reformed school governing bodies were intended to act as natural supporters of the Government's parent-friendly reforms. Automatic control of schools passed from local authority representatives after the 1986 Education Act, which gave equal representation on governing bodies to elected parents, co-opted members and two elected teachers.

Successive Education Acts have handed more and more responsibility to governing bodies. It is the governors who must sack and appoint staff, oversee the curriculum, ensure the safety of school buildings, approve the budget and implement an action plan when a school has been inspected.

'The workload is extremely heavy,' says Janet Jennings, governor of a primary and a secondary school in Cumbria. 'If you are a chair of governors it's going to take you at least four hours a week, probably eight.' Primary school governors, Mrs Jennings says, are under particular strain. 'Where the head is teaching full-time, governors end up doing most of the management work.'

'When it comes to facing huge budget deficits and teacher redundancies,' says Mrs Jennings, 'you ask why you are doing it when your original impulse was simply to try to help improve education.'

Governors can face even heavier demands on their time. A chair of a Midlands comprehensive with problems found herself putting in 30 to 40 hours a week, and grappling with an incompetent head.

What you are getting, says Ken Young, chair of a small primary school board on the Cumbrian coast, is educational management on the cheap.

Jenni Thackeray, a parent-governor at an Oxfordshire comprehensive, reckons 'ordinary' parents may be squeezed out. 'A lot of places are taken by people with management skills, mainly men, so there's not much room for mothers or the sort of parent who can't afford the phone bill to go up.' Demands on governors are, she says, 'fearsome'.

The Government expected that governors would be the scourge of wayward heads and teachers. Instead, they are as likely to line up behind their staff, even if they get a poor inspectors' report, appoint a lesbian headteacher or go beyond what John Patten thinks is appropriate in sex education.

Janet Jennings does not think this is surprising. On the whole, she says, governors are not very political and they get to know their teachers well. Many admit they take on the job pleased to help their schools.

The independent National Association of Governors and Managers (NAGM) believes the Government is partly to blame if some governors are now feeling stressed, says Walter Ulrich, its press officer. 'The Government should have made it clear that this is a serious public office. Some of its advertising literature underplayed this in a quite disgraceful way.'

It took some time for the Department for Education to realise that the new school governors were not necessarily their allies. Support for the school testing boycott last year astonished the department, says Keith Beck, who describes the civil servants as 'completely out of touch'.

Further evidence of disaffection is emerging as governing bodies comply with the law that insists they put the option of grant-maintained status on their agenda every year. 'I think a lot of governors are outraged and fed up at being told what to do in this high-handed way,' says Janet Jennings.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which has monitored the exercise, says that, of the 2,300 schools which have obeyed the law so far, 99 per cent of primaries and 97.5 per cent of secondaries have decided not to ballot parents.

Governors in more than a third of local authority areas, unhappy with the isolated role allotted to them by the new legislation, have set up associations to promote co- operation between schools and consultation with local education authorities. This is not quite what the Government envisaged.

Ken Young is trying to persuade community groups and business interests to draw up a plan to sort out the problem of surplus places. He says schools that lose the fight for pupils, and therefore funding, will have to close. 'But to let that happen by attrition is no solution. Planning is essential.'

Keith Beck wants to see a national forum for governors launched by this autumn. His plans are going ahead despite opposition from NAGM and a suspicious amount of encouragement from the education department which, it is thought, sees governor associations as a possible successor to LEAs.

'Our objective is simple,' Mr Beck says. 'Governors now have enormous responsibilities and no voice. We won't get a consensus among governors, but we can produce a range of opinions from the grassroots on policy issues which affect us all and use those to get governors into the political debate. We want our views to be heard before the decisions are taken.'


WHAT do governors do? Their responsibilities include:

Deciding school policy on a range of issues in co-operation with the head, who has day-to- day control of management.

Agreeing school charging, sex education and discipline policies.

Assisting in selection of staff.

Disciplining and promoting staff.

Ensuring that the national curriculum and religious education are taught.

Approving the school's budget.

Controlling school premises.

Ensuring that special educational needs are met.

Handling parents' complaints.

Hearing appeals from parents whose children have been excluded from school.

Reporting annually to parents.

Preparing and implementing an action plan after an inspection.

Initiating a parental ballot on grant-maintained status.

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