Joan Sallis answers governors' questions

Some governors are dissatisfied with our school's activities, clubs, residential visits and other out-of-school excursions. Surely it is an important part of school life and should be our concern?

Yes, there are few areas of school life which are more obviously our concern. If these activities are not education why is a school running them? There is another equally valid question: if they are education why aren't most children participating? But that is a highly values-related question and will provoke controversy in your school I guess and most others.

We also have a specific legal duty to produce a written policy on charging for school visits and keeping it up-to-date. You simply cannot discuss it without some philosophy about the purpose and those of out-of-classroom activity.

As you settle down to discuss the policy on charging - and you will be in trouble sooner or later if you do not - draw you boundaries wide and think carefully about the place of activities in the broad curriculum (defined by one government committee as "the sum of experience to which a child is exposed at school").

You will know that you cannot demand payment for any activity undertaken wholly or partly in school time (the only exceptions are the bare cost of board and lodging and small-group music tuition), nor can you exclude any child from such activity. So you must make it clear that any child is entitled to a place on any trip you run (unless it is in the holidays). You have to fix your voluntary contributions at a level which will subsidise those who cannot make any, or subsidise them from the school budget or any other school funds.

This will inevitably lead to discussions about values, about equity, about the messages the school gives in the outside world. The interests of teachers and all homes do not always coincide, though it is possible to visualise a school where all refuse to accept that the range of activities must be limited by parents' ability to pay. Such a school will go on seeking ways to enable all or nearly all to participate, to justify all that it does in terms of curriculum enrichment, and will believe indeed that communities where parents cannot contribute are just the areas where such enrichment is most needed.

Why does everybody make such a big deal out of the development plan as the hub of governors' activity? Ours, drafted by the head before most current governors can remember, has nothing at all to do with what we actually discuss and decide and some governors have never seen it. It is full of platitudes. What we actually discuss is how we can save 5 per cent on our total budget, dangerous parking at the entrance; how to stop hooligans damaging the fences and whether we should try to get sponsorship.

Five years ago I would say many governors would relate to what you have said. Now I have to say that I think your school falls way behind the progress made generally. Though I agree there is still a certain element of the piously obvious in some school plans, most governing bodies now see the development plan as a powerful engine that drives their work forward. It is closely linked to their decision making, related every year to the budget, determining their priorities, and setting targets which enable them not only to plan improvements but to monitor their achievement year on year.

The development plan is the practical programme for the achievement of school aims. The plan should set out the priorities for each year of, say, five, including the means by which the improvement is to be tackled and the target. The plan does not just say, for example, that you will work to achieve every child's potential. It will identify areas of particular need and say by what percentage in a particular year you will aim to raise to the proportion of pupils whose reading age matches their chronological age; or rise to the school average the flagging GCSE results in science or double the number of children taking part in clubs and other activities. Your concern for the school environment will be equally precise: say in 1997-8 you will reorganise the site so as to provide for a wider range of sports; in 1998-9 improve the staff accommodation and facilities; over five years replace all sub-standard classroom furniture; by half-term provide and stock a pond. Staff development provision can similarly be planned.

Such a plan, with concrete strategies and precise targets, builds in your priorities when budgets ebb and flow and makes many hard decisions for you. It gives people hope when they know there is at least a programme for removing obstacles and extending opportunities. Above all it encourages a culture of continuous improvement, without which no school can remain good never mind become better. Governors should be involved in writing the plan, in measuring progress against its targets and in revising it as necessary.

At our school we are very organised into committees and working parties and each reports to full governors, with reports of decisions, recommendations for action, or referral for guidance. Whatever the reference we have always taken the matter as far as we can and discussed issues in fair detail. Several governors, however, insist on having the same detailed discussion again at the governors' meeting. So instead of halving the work the committees are doubling it. Have you any suggestions?

I sympathise. I wouldn't see "halving" the work as a realistic aim since the idea is to get issues discussed more deeply and thus improve decisions. But we have failed if delegation doubles the work.

The committees themselves can help through the quality of their minutes or referral. If acting under delegated powers they should say: "This decision has been taken with the authority delegated to the committee and is reported simply for information." If the committee lacks that power but has come to a clear conclusion its members should say: "The committee strongly recommends the following action for the governors' formal approval."

If the committee has explored thoroughly but failed to reach a clear recommendation, they should set out the matters not in dispute first, then the options for action, clearly stated with pros and cons.

This helps, but without firm chairing of the full governors' meeting it will not necessarily work. If your chair has not been firm enough you should get the whole issue discussed. Someone has to say clearly to your self-indulgent members that the idea of committees is to deal with detail and sort out options and that you must not re-run the full debate.

I have left the best tactic until last. This is to open your committees to all governors. I speak from experience, and it really works. You have a core membership and only these vote if a vote is necessary, but dates and agendas go to all governors with a welcome to attend.

Firstly, it increases attendance markedly. Secondly, it builds trust: even if you decide not to go to a particular meeting you are less likely to suspect that cliques are developing. Finally, it gives you a perfect response to any governor who wants to have the same discussion repeated because the chair or colleagues can point out that anyone that interested could have gone to the committee.

Joan Sallis's Agenda column appears weekly in The TES

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