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Joan Sallis Answers governors' questions

I am a governor as well as working with governors in a local authority, and I wrestle a lot with the word "support", which so often is much misused, by heads as well as governors.

If you ask either what the main role of governors is, as often as not you get the answer, "to support the school". And although there is a sense in which it is the only right answer, it worries me because it is so often used to justify attitudes which I find distasteful.

Heads use it to get their own way or deal with governors who are too challenging for their liking, governors use it to excuse cowardice in tackling things they know to be wrong, or to cover up the fact that they haven't really a clue about what they are doing but like to feel good.

I know exactly what you mean. It isn't just in the governor world either, but among governors it can be pretty dangerous.Is there any need to say it? Why would anybody in their senses take on all that unpaid work if they did not want to give something, either to a particular school or, more generally, to support - here we go - an activity about which they feel passionately?

Maybe there are a few who think it gives them a sense of importance which life has otherwise withheld, but they do not, in my experience, last long.

I do not meet them often now.

Are we just cheerleaders, and if we are not do we have to be called interfering busy-bodies? A tall order, that. I think you just have to say that if it means you wish the best for this school, speak well of it outside, want it to make the sort of decisions which will enable it to flourish and go on improving, and stand by it through difficulties which, despite those good decisions, sometimes happen, and even occasionally those which its own folly has brought upon it, then yes, you are there to support the school. Just as you hope you do your family and friends.

But the governing body, as distinct from the individual governor, is the agent for a wide range of interests, of the school's accountability to the public, and it certainly is not going to be possible for that body always to say that everything about the way it is managed is right, all the time.

Challenge has to be part of the support, otherwise it is not worth having, and I suppose I can live with the word.

I feel just as ambivalent about that "critical friend" label invented by the Government. Yes, I know your friend is the one who loves you so much she can tell you that red does not suit you or you are putting on weight.

But nobody told 350,000 governors that it meant the governing body, not that you had that role as an individual.

What school needs between nine and 20 (new governing body sizes folks) critical friends, all saying something different?

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 0171 782 32023205, or see governorsask_ the_expert where answers to submitted questions will appear

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