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Case study: a high school in Maidenhead

I became a head in the early 1980s, when minutes of governors' meetings were dominated by the county's inability to repair the drinking fountains and hedges, and the injustice of local education authority funding and services. By the time I applied for a second headship, six years later, my new governors cared for the individual identity of their school and were fiercely independent in taking responsibility for appointing their headteacher.

We've made many changes at Furze Platt. In 1989 we adopted a system where a governor was attached to a year group. The role at first was broadly defined; he or she would be the governor contacted for case conferences, would attend year group celebrations - so boosting the status of the governing body - and help the year head.

There was an exciting start when one of the governors terrified a year head by proposing that his year should be managerially linked to his firm nearby; the governor was messianic about management systems, and positive that the school could only benefit. We still have year governors. They report to the governing body through committees and, at the start of the school year, trail a pupil through the school, so they get to know what goes on in classrooms.

Governors give an annual report to staff, parallelling the governors' report to parents. They introduce themselves to the staff at an annual after-school meeting, explaining what they do and what the governors have achieved in the past year.

At a review in the early 1990s, the governors and I realised that while they had a significant presence in the school, they were still not attached to its real work: pupils' learning. So they joined me in visiting departments. We attended departmental meetings, watched the way decisions were made, visited lessons, talked with the head of department and spoke to children. We still maintain these visits, as they give staff a chance to express themselves and give governors first-hand information.

We also realised there was not time nor the right atmosphere in the six main meetings each year to look in depth at strategic matters. So we established a core group of five governors, plus the deputies and head. The meetings, though - on a Saturday morning with coffee and pastries - are open to all governors. No decisions are taken at these meetings; they simply provide a chance to bring forward significant strategic initiatives, one a term. Proposals are then put through the normal committee system.

For better meetings, we have drawn up a fixed yearly set of agendas for each committee, and now have two-part agendas. One is connected with matters arising and temporary and routine monitoring; the other reviews the statutory work and looks at long-term policies. One member of the leadership group is linked to each committee. Matters to be raised at committee are discussed at the leadership group meetings. Reporting back is by the same system.

We've come a long way from concern with the drinking fountains. Our governing body remains a critical friend. As head, I know I am being held to account by, among others, a university lecturer, a leader of industry, lawyers and close neighbours. The professionalism, dynamism and creativity of this group, in charge yet working with us, does so much to maintain the school's sense of individuality. Actively engaged, governors stand for the school, but between it and central authority. They explain the school's points of view to the wider world and ensure that the school understands the wider world's feelings. They employ us. They lend us their children for seven years; they employ them later, seek their votes and engage with them as adults in the community on a daily basis - and the drinking fountains work.

Tony Hill is head of Furze Platt high school, Maidenhead

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