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It's the way you ask them that matters

Difficult questions must not be shirked, argues Jane Phillips

Governors are a school's "critical friend". They have a combined monitoring and support role. At times, the most supportive thing a governing body can do is to ask the "difficult" questions before anyone else does.

It may be challenging for the head and staff when governors start unpacking baggage that they would far rather keep hidden. How much more challenging if it is the Office for Standards in Education which finds the offending package.

There is no such place as "the perfect school". All schools have problems and difficulties. A confident head who trusts hisher governing body will share both the good and the bad news.

The governors and staff can then work together to solve the problems. But this will only happen where there is confidence and trust. Both take time to establish and both can be destroyed in an instant.

The more challenging questions must be asked in a way that elicits an open and honest response. An aggressive statement that the national test results are not nearly as good as St Ethelred's, and what is the head going to do about it, is not the right approach.

A more productive route would be: "I see the test results are not as good as last year. Is there a reason and what can we do to help?"

Ideally the person that you are questioning will be in no doubt that your motive is purely to solve a shared problem. The purpose should not be to "catch people out".

Questions should be asked at an appropriate time and place. If the subject is particularly challenging or relates to a specific individual, it is probably best to raise the question in private first.

Some priming may be necessary, and a time lag could be needed for complex questions which require research. "Any other business" at the end of a long meeting is not the time for big debates.

I know these methods work in schools because I have used them, so why don't the same strategies seem to work on the national scene?

As chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, I have been asking some difficult questions of both ministers and officials at the Department for Education and Skills. The absence of answers suggests that either confidence, trust - or perhaps both - are lacking. In relation to the expansion of the specialist schools programme we said:

* No convincing rationale for the difference between aptitude and ability has been produced and there is evidence that both are related to the quality of previous experience, which in turn is related to socio-economic group. So how can schools which select by aptitude ensure equality of opportunity when it is recognised that aptitude has its basis in socio-economic class?

* It is stated that the increase in the number of specialist schools will not produce a two-tier system. These schools are to receive preferential funding and there is a perceived value attached to specialist status. In these circumstances, what measures are to be put in place to prevent a two-tier system?

* In the drive towards equality of opportunity, it has been universally recognised that pupils have an entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum. At a time of teacher shortage, how will it be ensured that there is not a brain-drain of the best teachers to schools specialising in areas of expertise, leaving others without qualified staff in this area? And what measures will be put in place to prevent too-early specialisation by pupils? This question has taken on greater relevance since the 14-19 curriculum Green Paper.

* It is also significant that, according to OFSTED, too many of the existing specialist schools are failing in one of their core requirements: to share their expertise with the community. In a system where schools are competing for pupils (and therefore funding), how can this co-operation flourish?

If we continue to ask the difficult questions, then at some point they will begin to show confidence and trust in us and in each other. And then our education system will indeed be healthy.

Business psychologist Jane Phillips is a primary school governor and chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers

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