Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Board of governors?

Meeting table

ASCL member Geoff Barton has definite ideas about how governors' roles need to change to become more relevant and useful. Simply paying them may not be the answer.

Please don't show this to my governors, but if there's an agony aunt in the house, I'd like to share a secret. Five years into headship, I'm still not sure what governors do or indeed what they are actually for.

I suspect I'm not alone. Prompted by the obituary of former Westminster School head John Rae before Christmas, I have recently bought and read all of his books. They ought to be required reading for all aspiring heads and principals. After 20 years of headship, Dr Rae wrote this:

For me, the most enjoyable aspect of headmastering was the relations with pupils; the most difficult was the relations with staff; the most frustrating, the relations with governors.

There's something deeply reassuring about this. It reminds me of when I got my headship. The first letter of congratulations I received was from a former headteacher (and loyal ASCL member) Bryan Lewis. He wrote about retiring from his own headship in Leicester:

When my successor came for his final briefing, I remember him saying that he knew what a deputy did and understood the role of an assistant head. Then he turned to me and asked: "What do you do?" In true Captain Mainwaring style I replied, "I'm glad you asked me that." I then remembered words a wise old head had told me: "I look after the governors."

Ah yes, looking after the governors. That's certainly what the head's role consisted of, in part, in the past. It was an essential aspect of the role and one which we ignore at our peril.

But the problem is that the shifting sands of education have moved so rapidly and fundamentally that they risk leaving governors - and us - precariously shipwrecked on an increasingly clogged sandbank. We're in danger of spending time 'looking after governors' whose very purpose looks less and less relevant to our work.

After all, who would choose to become a governor these days? It's no longer a matter of turning up to a few convivial meetings, or being on hand to applaud politely through school concerts. It's now a role of remorseless accountability - whether for finances, health and safety, child protection or personnel issues.

A group of governors at our school has recently been involved in some fairly hefty tasks, including seeing through the controversial overhaul of the staffing structure, sitting on hearings and appeals panels, withstanding parental tirades at pupil disciplinary panels, and dismissing staff. In the words of Cilla Black, it's not a lorra lorra laffs.

I'm not convinced that talk of paying governors is the answer. It may add a crude kind of incentive but doesn't address the central issue of what governors are for. The danger is that we simply attract more zealots on board.

This isn't to argue against having a governing body. We need them for our accountability, to serve as critical friends, to bring a level of outside expertise that the inward-looking culture of schools can too often lack. But if schools are increasingly autonomous, accountable organisations, then don't we need to move governance from an era of amateurism to an age of accountability, just as the BBC is doing?

If headteachers and business managers are increasingly the chief executive and finance director of our schools, then we need the equivalent of the boards that any substantial company would rely on.

Wouldn't it make sense to appoint to governing bodies people who have relevant expertise to help us grapple with the range of personnel, financial and premises issues, whilst also maintaining parent governors whose concern - quite rightly - will be the day-to-day quality of the school's educational provision?

To have a board with expertise from business and other public agencies would move schools from the age of amateurism to the age of accountability. Bryan Lewis's comment about 'looking after the governors' would gain new, specific meaning.

Instead of fending off governors or having to devote precious time to explaining the minutiae of school life, we'd have a genuine strategic group whose expertise would enhance our work and bring to schools a collective expertise we desperately need.

And this is where nominal payment to their employers in recognition of the public commitment they are giving may help in the process of professionalising the way we work with governors.

And it would help some of us to explain what governors are for.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Suffolk.

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