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Leading lights from under bushels

Gerald Haigh discusses difficulties in recruiting governors from ethnic minorities, even in multi-ethnic schools.

Although the school serves a multi-ethnic community, governors were aware that every face at our meetings was white. Did it matter? We thought so - a sizeable minority of the school's pupils were from Punjabi-speaking families with no voice on the governing body. But what could we do about it?

In most authorities the local governor training and recruitment people (they are usually there somewhere, albeit under a range of titles and disguises) will have considered this themselves. They might, for example, have produced information in a range of minority languages. Perhaps they have run meetings for the ethnic communities in order to collect the names of people who are willing to be nominated or co-opted.

Our own authority certainly works hard at these sort of schemes. Even so, there are problems. There are lots of speakers of minority languages who are not very familiar with them in written form. In any case some of the concepts are not easy to translate. And many of the people who are reluctant to come forward to join a governing body are just as hesitant about attending a public meeting.

It may be fairly easy to attract the attention of those natural community leaders who give their time, turn up to meetings, appear in the media and adopt a high profile in matters of local concern. It is much harder to find the people whose personal agendas are not quite so broad.

Being a school governor should not, after all, be a high-profile affair. The real need is for people who will give time to listening to the community and who will combine what they learn with their own ideas and experience in detailed committee work.

This means that the main recruitment thrust has to come from the schools themselves, through existing governors, parents and staff. In our own case, much of the work was done by our Section 11 teacher (now an endangered species), a woman who voluntarily visits pupils' homes and makes links with local community groups. Once she knew that the recruitment of ethnic minority governors was an issue, she added it to her brief - no small thing when there were so many other isssues to be addressed.

She was convinced that the process could not be rushed. She was not, for example, going to pull out governor recruitment literature on an early visit to a family. What she did was to wait until genuine friendships were developing before working the prospect of being a governor into the conversations. A lot of this groundwork was done at social events, and at a local Punjabi class she attended.

Eventually, a full year after she was first approached, our first governor from the Punjabi community, the mother of a child in the school, agreed to be nominated. When she came to her first meeting, the Section 11 teacher came with her to do the introductions - something that can only happen with the co-operation and understanding of the governing body as a whole. After that the recruitment of others became easier.

Most of the people with whom I have discussed this are quick to point out that it is not only members of ethnic minorities whose initial feeling is that governors' meetings happen in a different world. Not everyone, of whatever background, is comfortable at meetings, or happy to bear a title like "governor".

Chairs, governors and heads have to welcome visitors, think about seating arrangements and run their affairs in as non-pompous a style as possible. The best recruitment policy in the world is a waste of time if a new and tentative governor is plunged without warning into a baroque procedural maze of motions and amendments.

And just to emphasise that none of this is easy, everyone - local authority, teachers, head, other governors - has to be aware of the ever-present danger of talking down to new and prospective governors. As one local authority officer who runs recruitment sessions told me: "I always come away from a meeting with the feeling that I have been too patronising."

In particular, as chairman I have to remember the fundamental, but so easily forgotten principle that all governors are equal. Some chairs, for example, marginalise parent governors, assuming that they are only interested in school uniform and the state of the toilets.

In the same way I have to guard against making assumptions about the topics in which our governors might be interested. The balance between using each governor's skills and making sure that no governor feels excluded from any part of the work is a difficult one. But that, presumably, is what being chairman is all about.

Gerald Haigh is chair of governors in a middle school in the Midlands.

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