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A bit more criticism than friendship

Joan Sallis answers your leadership questions

I have made a bad start as a governor. The head kindly arranged for me to tour the school, which was good - as a co-opted governor I cannot know it the way a parent would. I read in a government publication that I was to be a critical friend and approached it in that spirit. Mostly it was delightful, with happy children enjoying their work and play, but a bit noisy and a few things I thought could be improved.

One class was making an awful lot of noise in what was supposed to be creative writing. They were all shouting out ideas for good subjects for stories, which the teacher wrote on the board for voting later. Surelyit was the teacher's job to choose a theme and then have quiet to get it done? I made this suggestion on the spot and in writing.

I also said in another class that it would be better to put the slower ones all on one table. The teacher was asking how they would plan and tackle a particular task, and I felt the slow children were copying ideas from the bright ones, which would give a false impression. I was also a bit shaken to find 10-year-olds having sex education, which was embarrassing as I was taken into a class of boys only.

My comments were received very badly, and the chair rebuked me and said I had upset teachers and we should not interfere in the teaching. What else is a school about?

Good marks for energy and interest, but I'm afraid you haven't got quite the right approach. I always worried about that "critical friend" phrase, as it can cause a beginner a lot of trouble. For a start, it is the governing body, after discussion and in agreement or by majority vote , which is the critical friend, not an individual member on the loose. Even then, the daily management and development of staff is the head's job. And a good head will encourage teachers to run a participatory classroom - which need not be disorderly at all - and let the children develop ideas before they tackle the task .

This technique does stimulate the slower learners, who should only be made to feel "different" where progress demands it. And basic sex education at 10 is quite normal, though individual schools have some discretion at the primary stage.

Do not be upset. Everybody has to learn the boundaries, and if you show that you realise you were moving a bit too fast and will be a good team member, everyone will support you, I'm sure. It sounds a good school, and reminds me of the one where I am privileged to be a governor.

You often talk about good teamwork. How should we organise ourselves to achieve this?

The only authority we have is as a full governing body. This means that no individual, not even the chair, can act without support. The only power we have is together, and if anyone tries to usurp it the group must nip that in the bud.

Rather more complex is our attitude towards being volunteers. That is sometimes used as an excuse for less-than-maximum efforts. This debases the status of volunteering and of huge sectors of work and leisure which depend on it, and most of all of the job we do for schools. We must believe that only our best will do.

Teamwork rests on expectations of each other. These are a form of self-discipline, and they must be explicit in terms of the jobs people are given and the way they behave. It is not right to excuse absence for frivolous reasons.

We should not accept escape from a share of the chores which go with the job - for example, not doing the promised bit of research. And we must expect each other to know and abide by the rules. One member not doing this damages everyone.

Finally, we must share the work, be clear about what we expect, and always be loyal. If we ever use our power to suspend a member, it must be because they have failed to show loyalty in some serious way.

The TES welcomes your queries, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum. Questions should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX; fax 020 7782 3202. Joan Sallis's column now appears on this page every three weeks: see more of her answers at

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