Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Better service

Knife and fork

Talk of according governors 'professional' status is premature, says Phil Revell. Before we abandon the tradition of voluntary service, we need an informed debate about the nature of governance itself. 

Professional. Now there's an overused word. It would appear that in today's flexible lexicon, a professional is anyone who advertises themselves as such. The term has long since lost any connection with its origins. Perhaps that happened with the disappearance of the Corinthian spirit and the advent of professional sportsmen and women.

Or perhaps the notion of a professional service died a death a few moments after someone's lawyer first presented them with the bill.

We all know what the word used to mean. A professional was a doctor, a lawyer; someone whose authority  derived from a body of knowledge. It takes seven years to become a doctor, six years to become a solicitor, seven years  to qualify as an architect.

To qualify as a chartered civil engineer candidates must have an engineering degree, complete an initial period of professional  development including training and  engineering experience, then pass a professional review interview.

So when I hear calls for professional governors in our schools I wonder which definition of profession the speaker is using. 

Is it the high standards and body  of knowledge, the membership of a professional body? Or do they simply mean that the individual will be paid for the job? 

The debate has been reignited by the recent research into governance in disadvantaged areas carried out by Alan Dyson and his colleagues for the Rowntree Foundation.

Their report highlighted issues that others have raised: the complexity of the task, the shortage of governors, the preponderance of women, older people and those from majority ethnic backgrounds, the lack of confidence  felt by many governors, the lack of a clearly-articulated rationale for governance in our schools. 

Paid governors

One of a range of possible solutions  offered by Dyson was the paid professional. Governors might be paid to hold key positions in a  number of schools, or we might move to a federated schools system, with  super governing bodies operating almost as mini-local authorities - and led by a strategic team including professional governors.

To the harassed head working with a less than effective governing body, this vision might seem highly attractive. Instead of spending long evenings explaining the intricacies of the government's latest initiative, the head could work with a professional partner and actually get things done.

As ever the devil is in the detail. Who would actually pay the salary of the professional governor? How many governors would be paid, and who would volunteer to make up the numbers on a governing body that divided its members into professionals and amateurs?

If the school footed the bill what would prevent an unscrupulous head packing a governing body with members of the school's senior management team? What would we expect of paid governors? Would they be required to prove their competence with some kind of qualification?

The answers to some of these questions raise more questions. We have had the current model of governance for nearly 20 years but very little progress has been made in developing a proper training structure for governors.

Professional development

At the National Governors' Association we offer a First Certificate in Governance, and Edexcel currently run a BTEC qualification. Many governors self-fund their training. We disapprove - the NGA believes that professional development should be a high priority in schools and that should include the professional development of the governing body.

Free training is available from local authorities and some of this is very good. But some local authority training could accurately be described as death by PowerPoint while others involve blatant attempts to railroad governors into buying into local services and policies.

The Rowntree report identified the factors that draw people into governance. It is a "strong and principled sense of acting in the interests of the school". Governors are prepared to do battle in defence of their schools and their support for their headteachers is conditional on the head also acting in the common interest.

The role that governors find most uncomfortable is the management role demanded by government. Critical friends they can be, with sufficient support and training, but it is often the detail that gets governors down.

The National Governors Association has recently worked with the Food Standards Agency to produce guidance for governing bodies on implementing the new food standards that take effect this term. We are happy with the work we have done with the FSA; governors will certainly need some guidance to help them with their new responsibilities.

But the question remains, should governors - volunteers - be expected to work at the level of detail the new food standards demand? I suspect that the reality in many schools will be that the senior management team prepare the food policy document, which is then signed off by the governing body. Is that how it should be?

We badly need a debate on these issues; a debate around the nature of governance.

Ministers have set the English education system down the road to increasing school autonomy without thinking through the issue of governance at all. Yet, as local authority weakens, more and more responsibility falls to the individual governing body.

Those who find governing bodies an inconvenience might welcome such a debate. They might see it as an opportunity to strengthen the role of the head and to streamline leadership and management in schools.

Professional governors might be part of such a scenario, part of a small leadership team able to react quickly to change and drive standards in the school. There - I've almost convinced myself.

But the fundamental flaw in this scenario is the lack of accountability, the lack of democratic involvement, the rupture in the relationship between the school and the community it serves.

Democratic tradition

Governors are not unpaid managers, press-ganged into schools to do the government's bidding, though they may often feel as though that is the case. Governors are part of a centuriesold tradition of local involvement; this is democracy in action.

Moves towards academies and trusts, with governing bodies appointed by the sponsor, threaten this tradition and ministers appear unaware of the danger inherent in the policy. Professional governance would also break the link.

It is right and proper that volunteers should be reimbursed for expenses incurred in the role but to introduce payment for the time involved would corrupt the contract of service that is the basis of the best governing bodies. It would call into question the motives of those who put themselves forward.

We are familiar with the senior managers who see their school as just another stepping stone in a glittering career, who turn up with lots of bright ideas and then move on, leaving someone else to clear up the rag-tag left behind. Do we want to see professional governors treat schools in the same way, as just another line on their CV?

Slimmed down role

If we really want to see better quality governance there are things we can do. We need to focus on slimming down the role, making it more focused on support and accountability and less on management.

Governors are notoriously reluctant to allocate school funds for their own training and  development. That needs to change and headteachers should be part of the process. Few heads would leave themselves without the support of their professional association, and they need to be far more active in persuading their governors to pay for appropriate support services.

We need to ensure that governors are properly consulted: by central government, by local authorities, by Ofsted during the inspection process and by school improvement partners. We need government to value governance and to underpin the role with some action; a good start would be to beef up the requirement on employers to allow time off work for governors.

The answer to the question of good governance is simple. Support people in their role; help them to develop; identify and disseminate good practice.

There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good governors are already professionals. 

Phil Revell is chief executive of the National Governors' Association.

Governor training

ASCL provides training for governors through its bespoke consultancy service. Consultants will build a training  event based around your particular needs, ranging from updates on the latest legal issues and current initiatives, to induction to the role of governors, to helping the
governing body work more effectively as a team.

ASCL consultants deliver the training in your school for a group of staff, saving time and money. For more information, contact the MAPS Office on 0116 299 1122 or consultancy@ascl.org.uk

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