Odd body with a kind heart

Mike Kent

I'm never quite sure why people want to be school governors. Power? As a stepping stone to local politics? Or because of a genuine interest in how schools work?

Certainly, governors have awesome responsibility for every aspect of school life. But it wasn't always so. When I became a head, a governor's workload was minimal. They simply had to turn up for one meeting a term. Visiting the school wasn't a requirement, so many didn't, and they could be on as many governing bodies as they liked.

In those days, I'd arrive at meetings laden with documents, only to listen to earnest, but often irrelevant, discussions. Usually, a resolution was made that the head should compile even more documentation. Then an experienced colleague gave me a tip: "Agree to everything, but only do what's important - and that's anything directly affecting the children."

Back then, most governing bodies had elderly members with kind hearts but meandering minds. Miss Johnson was a shining example. Although petite, she had a ravenous appetite and marked her place at the table with immaculately sliced sandwiches. She would wait for what she considered a tedious agenda item, and tuck in. Once, she forgot her sandwiches altogether. She had been for a day at the seaside and returned with a collection of shells that might interest the children. So, at the next dull agenda item, she took a magnifying glass from her bag and began studying their markings. I was so fascinated, I haven't a clue what the item was about.

In the past, governing bodies often attracted candidates for local politics, who saw them as a good place to practise airing party views. While discussing the toilets, one of these political hopefuls stated that parents couldn't rear their children properly because they were stuffed into tiny rooms on crumbling estates. His opposite number volubly defended the council's position. As political immaturity caused both voices to rise, the premises officer appeared at the door and asked me if I would like anyone to be ejected.

Like juries, governing bodies contain a cross-section of society. When we co-opted a retired head of a young ladies' academy, she struggled to get to grips with life in a tough Camberwell primary. Offering to do a regular slot on Tuesdays reading "Beatrix Pottah" to reception children, she held out for a full half hour, only losing patience when a child scrawled on one of her suede shoes in felt-tip pen. "What is that?" she snapped. "Peter Rabbit," said the child. After that, her volunteer time was spent digging the school garden.

New governors always start out enthusiastically. When I appointed one recently, she offered to remonstrate with parents of persistent latecomers. But scanning the front gate video screen in my office one day, she was astonished to see a parent slip a just-delivered two-litre bottle of staffroom milk under her coat and disappear down the street.

Once settled in, governors can be incredibly supportive. After my first Ofsted inspection, two governors brought in large bottles of wine in anticipation of a favourable report. The inspector rose to his feet. "This," he said with pleasure, "is a good school!" Unused to Ofstedspeak, the governors stared at him blankly. "A good school?" said one. "We're a super school."

The inspector explained that "good" was actually a fine result, but the governors weren't having any of that. They bombarded him with a million reasons why he was selling us short. I realised it was the first time I had seen our governors totally united.

Heads might find them tiresome occasionally, but oh, the power of a governing body when it's on your side ...

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. mikejkent@aol.com.

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