Can you answer plainly whether or not we have a right to go into a class when we have reason to believe that there is something going on there that should concern governors? I had the upsetting experience last term of a teacher getting in a state and saying she would not allow me in her class unless the head instructed her. I had been in a number of other classes without any problem.
Individual governors have no absolute right to go into classes. It is highly desirable that all governors should have the experience of observing classes at work, but individual visits take place either at the invitation of the head or in fulfilment of a decision made by the governing body. That decision could be to introduce an attachment of each governor to a class or to establish a duty governor for a month, in order to increase their knowledge of the school. It could be that a named group of governors should have school dinners for a week and report back. It could be that the governing body through its members should find out more about how reading was taught in the school.
Even on visits thus made legitimate, however, the head should always be aware that you are in the school and what you intend to do, and any teachers involved should have been informed of the purpose of the visit. The head can indeed insist that teachers allow you access, but it is a great pity that a governor's visit should be imposed upon a teacher who for any reason really objects. The best experience for governors both in terms of learning and building relationships is with an enthusiastic and confident teacher. Confidence of others will grow.
That brings me to the worrying implication of your question. You clearly went into that class because you thought there was something wrong there, which suggests that you see the object of visiting as inspection. We are not inspectors, either individually or as a group. As individuals we go into school to learn and to contribute our views to the general awareness of the whole governing body, which does have an overall monitoring role. If we see something that bothers us, we should mention it discreetly to the head if it is something dangerous, or something illegal like smacking. If it is less serious or less clear-cut, we must find some way of introducing the general question it raises on the agenda, or talk to our chair or a trusted and experienced colleague about it, with a view to finding a way forward.
Your head should have made sure that all the staff knew you were in the school and might visit classes. What heads do about reluctant staff is up to them, but it is their responsibility to see that staff understand the role of governors and co-operate with them.
Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to Agenda, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171-782 3200.