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Keep the supporters happy

A Geordie friend was trying to explain the pressures that would lead a soccer manager like Kevin Keegan to resign. "Managing the players isn't the problem: it's keeping the supporters happy. Imagine," he said, searching for an analogy I would understand, "being governor of a school with 20 pupils and 100, 000 parents." What a horrible thought.

Like football managers, governors find themselves having to take the blame for many things beyond their control. If you are a parent governor or part of the local community expect to be accosted by angry parents and asked to "do something" about the state of the playground or Samantha's lost shoe. At the very worst, you too may find yourself gazing into a television camera trying to explain your team's sudden plummet down the league table or the unruly behaviour of your players.

Dealing with parents' complaints is the most difficult and delicate part of a governor's job. Always try to persuade a parent with a concern about an individual child to see the class teacher or the head. "I don't want to make a fuss," they will say. Too right - they want you to make one for them. You must follow agreed procedures. Try to be neutral, remember you are hearing only one side of the story and never promise to "sort it out". Remind them that there is a governors' complaints committee they can appeal to if they are not satisfied. But that this is a last resort, not a first port of call. Concerns about individual children should never be raised without prior discussion at governors' meetings. This is a hanging offence.

There is a genuine role for governors to play in picking up general areas of discontent. All but the most long-standing and dictatorial heads will recognise that market forces now operate in education and the customer base - the parents - need to be kept happy.

Reports from governors along the lines of "several parents have spoken to me about" or "everyone's worried about", should at least produce an explanation that you can pass back to the parents, if not remedial action. But ration this sort of approach to once or twice a year and learn to distinguish the deep-seated problems from the transitory and trivial.

When you are well enough established and trusted within the school, suggest an annual parental survey. After all, the Office Standards in Education will consult the parents in this way when the school is inspected: wouldn't it be better to know in advance what concerns are likely to be raised, and pre-empt some of them.

The proper forum for parents to raise general concerns about the school, as opposed to individual difficulties their own children may have, is the annual meeting for governors and parents. Traditionally no one ever comes to that, so if you want to communicate with parents, you must go where they go - to sports days, fairs and concerts. Wear a badge, be visible and accessible, and report back to the head and staff all the good things you hear about the school and its pupils as well as the bad.

If you can manage to tread the narrow line between firm, loyal support for the head and staff at all times, and a willingness to help and support parents with grievances - well, the Newcastle job has gone, but I hear Alex Ferguson plans to step down in a couple of years.

is a governor in the East Midlands.

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