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Over-trained, over-keen and, finally, overruled

Maureen O'Connor looks at the power struggles that are occurring between headteachers and their governing bodies. Jane Wright, the head of a small primary school, was happy about what she thought was a long-standing and supportive relationship with her governors and the local community. She and her staff were devastated when it went sour.

"It all went wrong after the appointment of a new governor who I'm sure really wanted to serve the community and the school. He went on governor training and seemed to be the sort of person who wanted to do the job well.

"But it was at the time the Government was being very critical of schools and was trying to implement the national curriculum. He seemed to take his duties almost too seriously. It was not that he felt that anything was particularly wrong in our school, but he did not seem able to accept that it was the professionals' job to make sure that what had to be taught was being taught. He wanted to check up himself.

"Little incidents began to occur in governors' meetings and in school, little niggles, suggestions that things should be done which were in fact already being done in a way which we thought was professionally appropriate.

"I ignored a lot of that until this particular governor became chair and the implied criticism become more open, not personal criticism but persistent questions about whether we were fulfilling the national curriculum. Tension was building up and staff morale was beginning to dip.

"Until then governors had visited the school regularly but informally. They had reported back to the governing body in a factual way about what they had seen in school. Then suddenly one governor's written report was presented in a totally different way. It was inspectorial. It almost read like a mini- OFSTED report. It was probably meant to be supportive, but parts were ambiguous and others pointed out 'matters which needed attention' in a way which could have been taken as critical of a colleague.

"My colleague took exception to the report and took union advice, so I felt I had to do the same. I did not see a copy of the report before the governors' meeting although I had asked for one as a matter of courtesy. In the end the report was distributed to governors but not discussed.

"There was a fierce dispute between me, the chair and officials at the education authority about whether this was appropriate and about who had the right to make decisions in a dispute of this sort. In the end the chair accepted that the report had to be amended and he resigned.

"We had ended up with a great fuss about a relatively small matter because governors had been led to believe that they had absolute rights in the school. The public emphasis on 'governor power' led them to think they had the right to inspect and tell staff how and what and when to teach things. It was the lack of faith in staff which was so professionally gruelling. "Without the support of my union I think I would have gone under."

Jane Wright is not the real name of the subject of this article.

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