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How to cultivate critical friendships

Felicity Taylor highlights ways in which governors can steer a school towards new goals without exceeding their powers STORY: School improvement is not just about the failing school. All schools need to develop, however good they appear to be; they don't have to be ill to get better. The school needs critical friends with different experiences of life and work, especially when the going gets tough. Governors must be sympathetic to the school's ethos so that they act as both a support and a stimulant, making sure that the school has planned goals and is moving towards them. The school development plan is of crucial importance in providing a policy and structure for improvement.

The governing body cannot contribute to the development of the school if it only gets its information from the business meetings of the governing body. Governors need to gather information from school visits, parents, pupils, local shops, advisers and inspection reports and the schools to which pupils move on.

The national curriculum and key stage testing can give governors a better idea of what should be taught and to what standards. Testing may highlight weaknesses and anomalies and good results can increase motivation. But unless we have some idea of how far these results reflect the efforts of the school, this knowledge is very limited. Testing when children enter the school can provide some sort of base-line. Governors and staff also need to reach consensus about the meaning of "disadvantage" and how to combat its symptoms.

Staff appreciate governors who come into school and take an active interest in what is being taught, perhaps by adopting a class or department, as long as they do not interfere with the teaching. Governors who can visit should report back to the governing body for the benefit of those governors who find daytime visits inconvenient. Teachers can be asked to speak at governing body meetings on the curriculum and on how they evaluate pupils' progress.

Heads and governors have specific roles; trouble begins when these are not clearly understood. The difference between policy and day to day management must always be preserved. If heads are not carrying out their functions properly, governors cannot and must not try to do it for them. The governing body can establish policies with the help of the head and staff, for example general guidelines on reading, homework or sex education. The head and senior management must have scope to use their professional skills in putting these policies into practice, so that the details of policy, such as which reading schemes to use, are left to their specialist judgment.

A recent ISCG report produced a checklist on how governors can take an active part in school improvement without exceeding their powers. These included: * Constantly review and evaluate policies and the school's mission statement.

* Use reviews and inspection to develop new ideas * Become an approachable governing body: organise a programme of governor visits to the school; observe, meet and listen to teachers; let them know that you are on their side.

* Attend staff in-service training days.

* Consider holding a meeting for all staff and governors once or twice a year.

* Boost morale by celebrating the good aspects of the school.

* Recognise and reward good practice, include a discussion of aims and achievements in the annual report to parents.

* Put the emphasis on rewards - stamps on children's wrists, stars, McDonald's tokens.

* Rewards for teachers - financial and time out of class. Encourage heads and staff to take part in local and national award schemes. Winning the award is immaterial; it is the effort which will make the school more effective.

* Visit other schools to find out what is going on, particularly those of similar size and composition. Bring fresh enthusiasm by using governors' own contacts and expertise. lnterest the local community - business, church, press.

* Give governors specific tasks. They usually work better in pairs or groups.

* Policy-making should be a whole-school activity involving pupils, staff, parents and governors. Include parents and pupils on working parties to look at issues such as uniform.

* Run a governors' surgery - parents can come with their problems or queries. Put photos of governors and staff up in school. Provide a drop-in room for governors and parents, mother and toddler clubs, and discussions for parents and governors. Make special efforts to encourage ethnic minority parents into school, for instance by running a buffet lunch with international dishes.

* Governors should meet for social occasions, to build relationships. Make a video of the children at work to entice parents to the annual meeting. Use parents' meetings to trawl for new ideas for curriculum work, projects and visits. The supporting and monitoring roles of governors should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Monitoring is itself supportive where it identifies and encourages good practice.

* Teacher governors should actively seek to involve the other governors more in the school.

Helping children to learn: the governors' role in promoting school effectiveness ISCG l994 Governors' Conventions Report. Pounds 8 inclusive from ISCG: Avondale Park School, Sirdar Road, London Wll 4EE; 0l7l 229 O200.

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