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Let us into the classroom;Briefing;Governors;Opinion

Governors need to see teachers in action. But a warm welcome is not guaranteed, warns Vivienne Barton

It is a typical British fudge. Governing bodies are increasingly being told to develop their "monitoring skills" so they can help their schools provide the best possible education.

What better way to do this than to get into the classroom and see what is going on? And yet the practice is fraught with difficulties.

Governing bodies can hire and fire staff, set headteachers' pay, and check that targets are appropriate, but the law does not actually give them any right of access to the classroom.

If a governor wants to see the school in operation he or she must agree the visit in advance with the headteacher and sort out precisely what his or her role will be. Even the best-planned visit can expose the fragile relationship that sometimes exists between the lay governor and the professional teacher.

Governors are welcome if they offer practical help - for example, to hear children read, to work in the library, or even to inspect the premises; but governors visiting schools to see and learn about teaching and learning is much less straightforward.

On the whole, it's OK if governors do not stray into "professional territory".

Questions about how the school is currently performing or whether some parts work better than others, can raise tensions between governor and teacher to a damaging level.

The paradox is that all the literature coming from ministers, civil servants and the chief inspector highlights the importance of governing bodies "putting learning at the heart", and asking challenging questions. They are, after all, answerable to the parents and community for the school's overall performance.

It is a minefield. Well-meaning governors negotiate with the professionals who, understandably, are too often inclined towards controlling rather than empowering their governors.

Yet, ironically, schools are now under too much pressure and teachers too busy to accommodate the very unplanned, unfocused visits which professionals themselves unwittingly have helped foster. The reason such visits still continue in many schools is only because they remain helpfully innocuous!

Effective governing bodies - those that make a difference - must be confident enough to ask questions about school performance; a good headteacher will welcome enquiring, challenging governors.

Governors fulfil their monitoring role by asking informed questions about teaching and learning. But first they need to understand what effective teaching and learning look like. What are the ingredients of a good lesson? What are the best conditions in which children learn?

There is now a wealth of research about what constitutes educational quality, but it is rarely shared with governors.

Politicians of all parties continue to give governing bodies more responsibilities: governors' meetings are increasingly taken up with the "business" of running schools; consultation requests proliferate; but the real purpose of governance - how the school aims to raise standards and how governors can engage in this complex and important process - seldom finds a place on the agenda.

In theory, governing bodies may be accountable for their school's performance, but the practice of school visits tells a different story.

Vivienne Barton is a Brighton governor and governor trainer. She writes in a personal capacity

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