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Burden of too many tablets of stone

Do governors need to be told how to behave? Joan Sallis responds to heads' moves towards a code of practice. A year or so ago governors all seemed to be writing policies. The latest craze is codes of practice. The policies obsession was clearly sparked off by the Office for Standards in Education, but I don't think many OFSTED reports have identified governors overstepping the mark. They are more likely to pick out those who are slow to assume their role.

I'm troubled by this latest craze for codes, not because I don't want to see governing bodies concerned to promote their members' good behaviour, especially on school visits - I'm always urging them to do so. No, it's that I suspect that this latest governor activity is headteacher-led, and may in the form it takes destroy the partnership.

The recent National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference emphasised yet again how much difficulty the relationship with governors is causing for some heads, and I have seen the first draft of the NAHT's code of practice obtained by The TES. I sympathise with the regional officers who have such a heavy caseload of conflict, and of course feel vicarious shame for fellow governors who behave inappropriately.

I would, however, beg that we remember that hard cases make bad law, and not build an edifice of prohibitions on experience in a tiny minority of schools. Many heads are working hard to build a genuine partnership, and a professional association should reflect the quality of its stars as well as protecting those in trouble. I understand that the NAHT's discussions on a code of practice are now proceeding in partnership with governors' organisations, SHA and the DFE, so there is a good prospect that the outcome, if there is one, will have more of a flavour of mutuality. The early draft is concerned entirely with governors behaving themselves: it is a confusing mixture of what is in the law and regulations and what heads might wish the law to be; and it contains nothing to suggest that heads must also accept obligations in the relationship.

I have my caseload of horror stories too and readers of my weekly question-and-answer column know only too well what figures most often. Above all, the first NAHT draft is heavy on prohibitions. I am amazed that a profession which would rightly these days eschew a long list of thou-shalt-nots in school rules, preferring instead to express positive expectations of pupils, should adopt the opposite tactic for adults, especially as governors are volunteers.

The danger with the DIY codes in the format many governors are talking about is that they will also become one-sided, since the temptation for heads to keep on adding everything bad that the most bizarre behaviour of some governor somewhere, some time, suggests might happen, may be overwhelming, and the relationship will collapse under the weight of tablets of stone.

I think we are looking for something more like the Sermon on the Mount than the Ten Commandments, more of a marriage service than a catechism. In other words it would be about mutual expectations and commitment, good principles rather than bad practice, a determination to succeed rather than a delineation of territory, and above all a will to pick oneself up and try again in the face of clumsiness, misunderstanding or plain wrongdoing.

What if, before we embarked on a steady relationship, we had to agree on who had first claim on the bathroom, who would be culpable when there was no bread for breakfast, how many dirty socks you were allowed to throw under the bed before you had a formal written warning, and how to respond to the sudden appearance of a kitten you had never been consulted about?

And how many would even reach the altar or the double bed if the rules to be obeyed referred to the likely misdemeanours of one partner only? Governors' misdeeds normally arise from a misconception of their role. Most frequently they haven't accepted that individually they have no power whatsoever - not even the chair unless it's a dire emergency - and that only the governing body has responsibility.

They want to be useful and active, and sometimes get involved at an inappropriate level and on their own, or fail to be loyal to corporate decisions. Some governing bodies suffer from "power drift" -the unwarranted assumption of A-team status by an individual or small group - and this is a common feature of crises.

Heads so motivated, as well as trainers, can help governors to avoid these dangers and to build strong teams. Local authorities could do more to revive flagging partnerships, being firm with governors who err and heads who don't share.

My best guide to how a good partnership could be defined comes from a training day I sometimes do with heads and governors together, which starts with letting each group write down its expectations of the other, goes on to confront mixed groups of heads and governors with these expectations and finally asks each pair or small group of participants from one school to negotiate on the changes they intend to make next Monday.

The expectations are so simple on both sides. Heads say they want governors:

* to be interested and committed;

* to be willing to give their time freely and to spend some with children in lessons;

* to be critical friends inside the school but blindly loyal outside;

* to respect the professional role of teachers.

Governors say they want heads:

* to respect equally the different perspective they bring;

* to trust them and value them;

* to share everything openly with them, good and bad;

* to involve them in policy at the right level and the right time (ie not too late), with no "pretendconsultation";

* to make them welcome to observe classes at work;

* to help them establish the equality of individual governors (ie not collude in power games), and especially recognise and accept the representative role of parent and teacher governors;

* to forgive them if they sometimes offend.

This two-way-mirror approach establishes more common ground than one would have expected, brings on the occasional salutary blush, and surely gives us material for something better than a book of rules.

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