David Taylor – 1999 Speech on School Governing Bodies

Below is the text of the speech made by David Taylor, the then Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, in the House of Commons on 11 January 1999.

As a parent of four daughters in full-time education and as one who was once employed in the profession, it has been a pleasure and a privilege for me to be a member of school governing bodies in north-west Leicestershire for more than 20 years. However, there is no comparison between those early years as a governor and now, and nor would I ever want to return to them. The role of governing bodies has changed completely following the implementation of local management of schools introduced by the Education Reform Act 1988. Every survey of governors since then has revealed the great time commitment that the job now involves and has referred to the paper mountain from central and local government and from the schools themselves.

I am delighted that the Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), is replying to the debate. Since her election to the House, she has used her 18 years as a teaching professional to excellent effect and she is widely respected in the world of education. She knows only too well the impact on governors of the huge changes in the culture of education during the past decade or so.

In the debate on the education White Paper, my hon. Friend said:

“We recognise the important role of governors… I am afraid that we have put a further burden on them… When the relationship between the governing body and the school is right, it is a tower of strength for the good of the children. When it is not right and when governors feel that they are burdened down with paperwork, it is a matter for concern.”—[Official Report, 18 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 656.]

In my visits last year to all schools in north-west Leicestershire, it was clear to me that the Government have every right to be concerned. The chairs of governors of those schools—mainly village primaries—often said that they were drowning in a sea of paper. I requested this debate in an attempt to raise the profile of the issues.

Nationally, there are more than 300,000 governors and they are a huge and valuable resource. However, there is a risk that, as unpaid volunteers, they are being taken for granted and overwhelmed by consultation papers and new duties. Members of all governing bodies are increasingly concerned about the layer upon layer of additional responsibility and work that is being placed upon lay governors. Governors are unpaid volunteers: although they can reclaim expenses for expenditure incurred on behalf of the school, few do so because they are concerned about additional costs on already stretched school budgets. It might seem surprising, but many new governors are still not aware of the commitment and responsibilities that come with being a governor, while more experienced governors feel that they cannot commit more and more time to doing justice to their role. Recently, there has been a much higher turnover of governors in my part of the world, and we are not unique.

The issue is not merely the call on the time of governors—time which so far has been willingly and freely given: there is an enormous information overload. ​ The continuing inflow of documents for the attention of chairs and members of governing bodies is reaching alarming proportions and is a disincentive for people either to take on, or to continue with, the role of governor. A cursory glance at the commitments for school responses in Leicestershire last term, and for some due early in the current term, reveals eight major consultations by the local education authority: on educational development, lifelong learning, behaviour support, nutritional standards for school meals, fair funding, key stage 1 class sizes, the new deal for schools and early-years child care. Soon, the LEA will be required to hold consultations on asset management, youth work, school organisation, special educational needs provision, youth and community education review, fair funding from April 2000 and the LEA Ofsted action plan. The Minister will appreciate what a daunting agenda that is for governing bodies and head teachers.

I do not criticise the LEAs; they are carrying out statutory responsibilities to consult and would be acting illegally if they did not do so. Central support staff in local authorities are as overwhelmed by those requirements as are governors and school staff. However, at the rate that we are going, something will have to give.

I have referred to the particular pressures of time and to the immense information overload for governors. I now turn to the issue of responsibilities. The increased responsibility in many areas requires a range and level of professionalism and expertise that few lay individuals can reasonably be expected to have. However, what is frequently demanded of governors, especially those who are chairs of governing bodies, now includes the setting of staff pay and conditions, professional development interviews and appraisal of head teachers, and, most importantly, the health and safety legal requirements. Following the delegation of health and safety issues to schools, governors have a corporate responsibility for health and safety regulation and non-compliance might constitute a criminal act that can carry severe penalties.

I have always supported increased freedom for governors in relation to schools and recognise that it brings increased responsibility. I believe that most governors are content to accept that responsibility. However, they are volunteers and they require training and support. Local education authorities are under a specific duty to provide governor training. In Leicestershire, that is very well handled within the limited resources available, but that is not necessarily the case elsewhere. One of the difficulties in providing up-to-date and effective training and support is that guidance material on recent educational initiatives is not as full or as available as would be ideal, nor are the resources typically available to LEAs for such matters anywhere near the levels necessary to help optimise governors’ contributions to driving up standards.

The three key roles of governors remain to provide a strategic view, to act as a critical friend and to ensure accountability. The day-to-day pressures are such that the urgent can too often drive out the important. It is easy to forget that one’s original intention was to drain the swamp when one is up to one’s ears in alligators. Many of the extra pressures on governors that I have described developed in the years following the Education Reform Act 1988, but the past 20 months have posed additional challenges for school governing bodies through the major new duties placed on them.

The Labour Government brought into force certain provisions of the previous Government’s Education Act 1997. The new duties now placed on governing bodies include the requirement to make arrangements to adopt a baseline assessment scheme for pupils entering primary education. Governing bodies must now adopt curriculum tests and public examination schemes with locally defined annual targets. There is a new duty on governing bodies and head teachers to provide careers education in years 9 to 11.

Finally, under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, governing bodies are required to ensure that schools meet limits on the size of infant classes; they must conduct the school with a view to promoting higher standards of educational achievement; they must have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State on determining the capability of members of staff; they must set annual school attendance targets; they must adopt a home-school agreement and take reasonable steps to ensure that the parental declaration relating to such agreements is signed by every parent; and they must ensure that any school lunches comply with regulations prescribing nutritional standards.

There is an additional duty, to which I have already referred, relating to health and safety of persons on school premises, or taking part in any school activities elsewhere. A recent tragedy in Leicestershire underlines the importance of that new responsibility. I have outlined only a few of the new duties to illustrate the extra challenges posed for governors.

Notwithstanding the changing priorities and despite the limitations on time and resources, the predominant role of any school governing body should be a strategic one. Governors constantly strive to establish high expectations, challenge complacency and provide a practical policy framework within which the school can thrive. However, the key to that is surely to have every post on the governing body filled, some continuity of local and national policies and properly resourced support from the LEA or school.

Governing is a commitment which, if carried out properly, consumes many hours of precious time. Governors are expected to share responsibility for the safe and efficient running of the school. Many governors are in full-time employment and find it difficult to persuade their employers to allow them time away from work to fulfil their widening duties. Some governors have to use days from their precious annual holidays to do that, which compromises their commitments to their own families.

At local schools, governor visits are often used to monitor and evaluate curricular work in the school—in my area, the literacy hour is under review this year. Monitoring and evaluating the curriculum is an area in which governors often feel out of their depth. It is very time consuming if it is to be done properly.

The pressures on chairs of governors are heavy; at different times, I was chair of a small village primary school and of a large upper school. As chair, one’s work load is clearly much larger than that of other governors. One is in daily contact with the head teacher to give support, with frequent meetings to discuss special needs, budgets and new directives, to fill in consultation documents, or to consider admissions. The chair probably tries to summarise all the documents coming into the school to make things easier for the other governors. One must often produce much of the governors’ report to ​ parents and write letters to the local authority when one does not agree with its decisions. One must make and consider suggestions for the school’s development plan—the list goes on.

I loved the role of chair of governors: it was one of the most interesting voluntary jobs that I have ever done. However, the calls on time and energy can become wholly unreasonable. We are rapidly reaching the position where future candidates for the chair will come only from the ranks of the retired, the unemployed, or those with some other means.
I remember that Sir Ron Dearing recommended that schools should be allowed to work in peace for at least five years.

That would have given governors and teachers time to consolidate and improve the new skills that they had had to acquire during the previous 10 years. No one expects the world to stop for them, however, especially when social and economic change is so rapid. Our new Government, with an ambitious agenda to fulfil, produced even more pressure. I was delighted that our top campaign priority was education and that education is a main focus of our actions in government. Nevertheless, we absolutely must carry governors with us. The voluntary commitment of governors is already heavy and the hours are extensive. Many governors feel that even more delegation is undesirable and that governing bodies have been given enough powers and responsibilities to absorb. More paid staff, either in schools or in LEAs, are required to support the governor’s role.

When it was known that I had been successful in securing the debate, I received some feedback from local governors with a substantial number of letters, faxes, phone calls and visits from schools in the county of Leicestershire. We should bear in mind that many of those people have performed that role for a decade and more. They have experienced all the changes made by successive Governments and are not harking back to some illusory golden era of governing. I shall quote briefly from that correspondence. The chair of governors at a small village primary school says:

“We are now implementing the various initiatives detailed in the School Standards and Framework Act. I am increasingly concerned that the governor work load is going to become prohibitive. In addition, the increase in governor responsibility and accountability does not seem commensurate with the voluntary nature of serving as a school governor.

I do not think that remuneration for governors—as has been suggested occasionally—is the answer. I do, however, feel that governors are becoming a free substitute for the education authority professionals who are rapidly disappearing as more and more services and administration are devolved into schools.

Aside from the increased role of governors, this devolution of services puts extreme pressure on the staff of small schools.”

A second letter states:

“It is slightly alarming to note the rapid way in which the role of school governor has changed over the last year—it may be increasingly difficult to find people who are willing to take on this job in the future.”

Another letter says:

“I have been Chair of a local primary school for the past 18 months. During this time, we as a governing body have seen the amount of our work load increase tremendously. The sheer weight of documentation that comes through from the DfEE and the LEA is such that I do not have time to read it all… I am aware that many of my colleagues find themselves equally beleaguered. We ​ find ourselves having to concentrate on the everyday issues of running the school rather than focusing on strategic issues and those directly affecting the children within our school.

I became a governor because I cared about my children’s education. I now find myself dealing with a whole array of issues which have little or nothing to do with that education.

I have to take responsibility for keeping them warm, safe, fed and partially educated at home. The balance of their education should be provided at school but governors cannot focus on that crucial part because they are too engrossed in the new bureaucracy of governor accountability. Frankly, it is labour on the cheap. Please help”.

I pass on to my hon. Friend the Minister that poignant and heartfelt plea.

As a governor in and the Member of Parliament for a constituency containing 50 schools and 12,000 children, I urge the Minister to recognise governors’ problems and give them encouragement about the Government’s support for them and reassurance about their future role. The weight of work and worry that we are transferring to volunteer governors seems neither sensible nor sustainable. We cannot go on like this.

I am grateful to the Whips for carving out so much time for the Minister to respond to a crucial issue. I look forward to her speech with great interest.