Dalton's Diary

The role of the governor is often described as that of a "critical friend". Do you have "critical friends" yourself - the sort of people who tell you honestly that your new hairstyle does not suit you and think you really ought to know, for your own good, what other people are saying about you behind your back? See much of them, do you? No, I thought not.

As a new governor, concentrate on the "friend" part first and leave "critical" until later. Teacher morale is at an all-time low. Nearly half the primary teachers questioned recently said they would leave teaching if they could, and the prospect of early retirement has just been withdrawn.

Teachers are blamed for everything from the decline in family values to the failure of the English cricket team. The spectre of an inspection haunts their nights, and most days some helpful politician or pundit comes up with yet another suggestion of how they could do their job better - more phonics, streaming, homework, sport, smacking or, it had to come, military training.

So it is easy for governors' visits, coupled with suggestions of monitoring and evaluation and school improvement to be seen as yet another stick to beat teachers with.

Take it slowly. Attend meetings, sports days and concerts, and watch, listen and learn. Visit the school, after discussing at a governors' meeting what the focus of your visit should be - a particular subject area, special needs, lunchtime arrangements. See the head first and read the appropriate policy documents.

Ask questions afterwards - never during a lesson - and never preface your remarks with "when I was at school..." Report back on your visit in writing to the next governors' meeting, having shown your report to the teacher concerned or the headteacher first. Praise anything you possibly can, even if it is only the comfy cushions in the reading corner.

Once you have established yourself as a supportive and non-threatening presence, you can start to ask the big questions. Is the school doing as well as it should? How is this monitored? Are some subjects getting better results than others and, if so, why? Are there marked differences in achievement between girls and boys, or different ethnic groups? What are attendance levels like and how many children are excluded? How well do the pupils perform against national standards and is the school doing as well as a similar establishment down the road? But do not raise these issues on your own: remember you are part of a team.

Ask for monitoring and evaluation to be put on the agenda at the next governors' meeting. Ask what the staff already have in place and get them to share it with you. They will tell you that GCSEs, test results and league tables are not the whole picture, and this is quite true. The challenge is to find other agreed ways of measuring effectiveness and progress.

At my suggestion, an anonymous survey of parents was carried out at my school last year. We intend to repeat it annually to see if the changes we made in response to parental concerns have raised satisfaction levels.

I have to admit that when I first proposed a survey the staff reacted as if I were advocating the return of the public stocks and inviting the parents to throw rotten tomatoes. The parents came up trumps, with lots of praise for the school and staff as well as criticism. But take warning: you really do have to know someone awfully well before you can tell them they need a deodorant.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the East Midlands

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