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Want a better school? Free up governors

However committed they might be, the ability of governors to change the workings of a school turns out to be rather limited

My heart sank when I read yesterday that the Chief Inspector for Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was “raising the stakes” for school governors. I speak as someone who has been on the governing bodies of a wide range of schools in the state sector – from primary to sixth-form college – since shortly after my first child started primary school in the 1970s.

Over that time, the rules under which governing bodies operate have changed regularly. What has remained constant has been the Department for Education’s urgings for governors to do better – to do more to drive up the performance of their schools. Sometimes the emphasis has been on academic improvement, sometimes on more sport, and sometimes on better pupil awareness of healthy eating or other more domestic issues.

What is less clear to me is how we are actually supposed to do this. However committed a governor or group of governors is, their ability to impact on a school’s performance turns out to be rather limited. Yes, they are required to sign off on targets for each department’s performance, to oversee the consistency and legal compliance of admissions, to ratify special-needs provision – activities which may well be assisted by the new “Data Dashboard” being unveiled by Wilshaw. Yes, there are animated discussions of the school’s direction of travel, its aims and aspirations at full governing body meetings. But, in the end, the school is as good as the leadership of its head teacher and senior staff, and the best governors can do is to hold them properly to account.

Governors, in my experience, are well aware of this. We mostly serve out of a sense of wishing to give something to our local community, or because one of our own children attends the school. The best we can pride ourselves in doing, from time to time, is helping to nudge the statistics up a notch or two in the school’s performance in some area we think important.

The result is that many governors find themselves sitting through long meetings after work, listening to reports larded with acronyms and peppered with obscure jargon and statistics without a sense that they can realise the ambitions they may share for the school. That, I suspect, is what Wilshaw means when he says that governors tend to “focus on the marginal rather than the key issues”, and that there is “too much time spent looking at the quality of school lunches and not enough on maths and English”.

It will take more than a Data Dashboard, I’m afraid, for governors to be able genuinely to influence their school’s aspirations and performance.

Professor Lisa Jardine is an academic and broadcaster