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School Governing Bodies: do they have a clear role?
Derek Gillard
June 1987

copyright Derek Gillard 1987
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Gillard D (1987) School Governing Bodies: do they have a clear role?

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ABSTRACT In this article I survey the history of school governing bodies and examine their traditional role. I note that Margaret Thatcher's government had given parents a much greater say in the running of schools, and consider whether this had made the role of the governors any clearer.

The 1986 Education (No. 2) Act widened the powers of school governing bodies and the proposals which Education Secretary Kenneth Baker is currently putting forward for inclusion in a major new education bill will give them even greater powers and responsibilities. Whether these new powers will indicate a clearer role for governors remains to be seen. Certainly, it is fair to say that their role has in the past been hedged about with uncertainty and ambiguity.

In the middle ages most schools were connected with ecclesiastical foundations but from the sixteenth century onward more and more schools were founded by town or city corporations or by individuals by means of endowment or subscription. In these 'public' schools it was usual to have a group of governors, managers or trustees to oversee the conduct of the school.

In the early nineteenth century, elementary schools frequently depended on one patron - usually a clergyman in the case of National Society schools. However, when making grants to these schools, the central authority preferred to deal with a group of managers and it became usual for them to have some control over the secular curriculum, while the church retained control over the religious teaching. The 1870 Education Act empowered (but did not require) the boards of non-church schools to delegate their responsibilities to a body of managers. Some did, some did not. This freedom to choose was allowed to continue by the 1902 Education Act, although secondary schools were expected to have governing bodies.

By the time of the 1944 Education Act, therefore, all voluntary elementary schools had management boards, secondary schools had governing bodies, but some local authority schools had neither. The 1944 Act largely preserved these distinctions: Section 17 required all primary schools to have boards of management but Section 20 allowed local education authorities (LEAs) to group schools under single governing bodies. In some cases this meant a single board of governors for all an authority's schools. Despite this, 'the 1944 Act triggered new thoughts about school government and raised new expectations about its potential form and scope' (Kogan et al 1984:3).

By the 1960s the picture was very mixed, as the research of Baron and Howell (1974) has shown. Rather less than half the country's schools had their own individual body of governors.

'The 1970s proved to be a decade of active public opinion about schools and their control' (Kogan et al 1984:4). The establishment of the Assessment of Performance Unit, the William Tyndale affair, Callaghan's Ruskin speech, the 'Great Debate', the enquiry into LEA arrangements for the curriculum, fears about standards and the adequacy of educational provision for a technological society and parental aspirations were all part of the movement which, by 1975, had seen many local authorities allow both teachers and parents to be represented on school governing bodies.

Despite all this activity 'the role of a body of managers or governors as an independent tier in the control of a maintained school [was] still unclear' (Aldrich and Leighton 1985:41).

The Taylor Committee, set up in 1975, proposed changes in the composition of governing bodies but made relatively few new points about their role. Their report A New Partnership for Our Schools published in 1977, tried to achieve the best of all worlds - maintaining the existing partnership between local and central government and the school, while making the governing body more representative of all those with an interest in the school.

What, then, was the role of the governing body by this time?

As far as educational policy making was concerned, it was limited to considering LEA policy papers or being consulted by the LEA in other ways. This was an important part of the work of governing bodies, yet the task of contributing to local educational policy making was not mentioned in the Articles of Government, not referred to in the 1945 Model Articles, nor in the Taylor Report.

The governing body's school management role consisted of elaborating the objectives of the school, making primary decisions regarding the development of the school curriculum and the distribution of resources, and secondary decisions relating to the day to day administration. In practice, much of this was devolved to the head teacher.

Since the 1944 Act there had been a degree of governor involvement in the appointment of head teachers, though the question of balance between the LEA and the governors had remained open. Taylor recommended that 'the procedure for the appointment of heads should provide for a small selection committee consisting equally of members of the governing body and representatives of the local education authority' (Taylor 1977:73).

The 1945 Model Articles had envisaged that the appointment of teachers other than the head should be made by governors in consultation with the head. Taylor recommended that 'the selection of deputy heads and other teachers should rest with the governing body, who should give due weight to the professional advice made available through the local education authority' (Taylor 1977:73).

It is when we come to the 'secret garden' of the curriculum (the term was first used by Lord Eccles, Minister of Education, in 1960) that things become even less clear. Kogan, for example, talks about the 'vague and imprecise phrases in official documents' (Kogan et al 1984:117). The 1945 Model Articles gave governors 'the general direction of the conduct and curriculum of the school' (Kogan et al 1984:117) but the term 'oversight' has often replaced 'direction'.

Taylor 'made a sustained attempt to operationalise these vague responsibilities in terms of identifiable tasks for governors' (Kogan et al 1984:117). They should have responsibility for setting the aims of the school (taking note of constructive suggestions), they should monitor the head's plans for implementing these aims, they should delineate guidelines, rules and sanctions regarding behaviour and indicate to the head what information they require from him/her. But all these were 'hedged about with qualifications regarding the policy of the LEA and the need to negotiate and consult with teachers at every stage' (Kogan et al 1984:117).

Thus curriculum matters were delegated 'nominally to governing bodies but in practice to the autonomy of heads of schools' (Brooksbank and Ackstine 1984:108). The governors are 'sandwiched between the head's responsibility for controlling "the internal management and discipline of the school" and the local authority's right "to settle the general educational character of the school"' (Brooksbank and Ackstine 1984:137).

In the event the 1980 Act which followed the Taylor Report 'proved to be a less than radical piece of legislation' (Kogan et al 1984:1).

But more was to come, in the shape of the 1984 Green Paper Parental Influence at School.

Parental influence at school is a courageous document which proposes a decisive break with the past. Whereas school government both before and since the 1980 Education Act has been primarily a local authority activity in which other groups such as parents and teachers have been allowed to take part, the Green Paper envisages governing bodies which act as independent forces to focus on and improve the work of schools and in which parents will have the leading voice (Kogan et al 1984:176).
There were two main objectives: parents were to form a majority on governing bodies and there was to be a clearer definition of their range of functions. The Green Paper also proposed a greater say for governors in the curriculum - but recognised that no curriculum statement is likely to be effective 'unless it is compatible with the curricular intentions of the LEA, the head and the teachers' (Kogan et al 1984:178).

However, as a result of consultations about the Green Paper, the government announced (in the White Paper Better Schools) that it had decided not to proceed with the plan for parents to have a majority on governing bodies so that 'no single interest will predominate' (DES 1985:65). Better Schools proposed that 'the governing body should be able to determine, with the head teacher, the main policies and lines of development of the school' (DES 1985:67). Its views should be taken into account in the appointment and dismissal of staff, the aims and objectives of the curriculum and the principles governing discipline; it should be informed of the cost of maintaining the school and given control over expenditure on some items.

The 1986 Education (No. 2) Act put many of these ideas into effect. In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1986, Kenneth Baker said 'Our Education Bill radically changes the composition of school governing bodies. It gives these bodies new powers and responsibilities.' Patricia Leighton, speaking to Ealing head teachers on 20 November 1986, said that the new Act would 'provide a field day for the legal profession'. The Times Educational Supplement called it 'an uncommonly messy piece of legislation' and added that 'control of the curriculum continues to be obscure, with heads acting as arbiter between their own governors and their own employers' (TES 24 October 1986).

The 1986 Act, therefore, though far more radical than that of 1980, still leaves many questions unanswered.

However, almost before the ink is dry on the 1986 Act, we now have the prospect of a major new education bill before us. Indeed, consultative documents have been published during the past week on the proposed National Curriculum and on procedures for allowing schools to opt out of local authority control. Confusion and uncertainty continue. Tim Brighouse wrote in the TES (24 April 1987) 'A nationally-imposed curriculum ... seems to fly in the face of the Education Act 1986 which has given control of the curriculum to governors, parents and head teachers.' And again, 'School governors will be made responsible for the appointment and dismissal of head teachers and their staff', (TES Leader 24 July 1987) thus abolishing the selection procedures so recently introduced. Further measures to allow governors greater control of finance and, ultimately, to opt out of local authority control, seem likely to increase uncertainty rather than diminish it.

There is no doubt, therefore, that the role of school governing bodies is now wider than ever before and looks set to go on widening in the coming months. Whether that role will be any clearer is open to debate.


Aldrich R and Leighton P (1985) Time for a new act? London: Bedford Way Papers/Heinemann Educational Books

Baron G and Howell DA (1974) The government and management of schools London: Athlone

DES (1985) Better Schools London: DES

Kogan M (ed), Johnson D, Packwood T and Whitaker T (1984) School governing bodies London: Heinemann Educational Books

Taylor (1977) A New Partnership for Our Schools Report of the Committee of Enquiry London: HMSO

This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in June 1987 as part of my Diploma in Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.