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So you want to be a school governor?

You'll need to be dedicated - or just plain dotty - to stay the course. Mike Kent recalls some memorable meetings

I'm still not sure what makes anyone want to be a governor. A bit of power? Spare time to offer? A passion for education? Governors have awesome responsibilities over health and safety, the curriculum, the budget and teachers' salaries, and have to attend endless meetings and training sessions. And they're not even paid for it!

My own chair of governors tells me we are fortunate in having a group of people who care passionately about the school and work hard for it. It's still difficult for most schools to recruit enough suitable people, especially in depressed inner city areas like ours. There's so much to cope with that governors need a lot of commitment.

It wasn't always so. When I became a head in the pre-Baker stone age, the governors' workload was minimal. They simply had to turn up for a termly meeting. Visiting the school wasn't a requirement, so many didn't bother. Two decades later, after attending many lengthy governors' meetings, I have been amply compensated for the trouble by the array of characters I've met, some helpful, some not. Some gained full marks for eccentricity.

Years ago, I'd arrive at meetings laden with documents and find myself listening to earnest but pointless discussions. Invariably, a resolution was made for the headteacher to present a further mass of documentation and I'd work each evening for a fortnight producing it. Then a more experienced colleague let me in on the secret. "Show what a co-operative chap you are by smiling and agreeing to absolutely everything, and then do only what's important," he advised. "And the only important things are those which affect the children."

He went on: "The average governor attends one meeting in three and sits on the governing body of at least two other schools, so they forget easily. The only person who might remember anything is the clerk, but you can always challenge his minutes..."

At the next meeting, I remember an elderly governor demanding to know why the school was no longer allowing visits from the home beat police officer. I was astonished. We'd done nothing of the sort and I said so. He merely repeated the accusation, thumping his fist on the table until a hearing aid shot out of his ear and I realised he had a hearing problem. He was also on three other governing bodies and often got us hopelessly mixed up. While he hunted under the seat for his hearing aid, the chair moved the meeting on.

Back then, most governing bodies had elderly members whose hearts were in the right place but whose minds meandered. Miss Johnson and Mr Eldridge, both now retired to that Great Governing Body In The Sky, were shining examples. Although petite, Miss Johnson had a ravenous appetite and marked her place at the table with sandwiches cut to a thickness that suggested they came three to a loaf. She'd wait for what she considered a tedious agenda item, and then tuck in. Assorted fruit and veg would fall softly to the table.

Once, she forgot her sandwiches altogether. She'd been for a day at the seaside and came armed with a collection of shells. Halfway through the chair's introduction, she took a magnifying glass from her bag and spent the next agenda item studying a family of tiny periwinkles. I was so fascinated, I haven't a clue what the item was about.

Mr Eldridge coached local youth in soccer skills. He was always late for meetings, partly because he had more enthusiasm than ability. He often slipped violently on the ball, later appearing at meetings with appendages in plaster or a sling. Around the third agenda item, he'd sometimes place finger and thumb on a furrowed brow and dip his head with intense concentration. It took me four meetings to realise he had actually dozed off.

Governing bodies often attracted candidates for local politics, who saw them as a good place to practise airing their views. In discussing the crumbling outside toilets - an agenda item that still persists today - one of these political hopefuls stated baldly that parents couldn't potty-train their children properly these days because they were stuffed into tiny rooms on crumbling estates and nobody was doing anything about it.

His opposite number volubly defended the council's position. Everyone sat in numbed silence as political immaturity caused both voices to rise in anger, until the schoolkeeper appeared at the door, his eyebrows raised questioningly at the chair in case anybody needed to be forcibly ejected.

Like juries, governing bodies contain a fair cross-section of society. This does throw up anomalies from time to time. When we co-opted a retired headteacher from a small, respected academy for young ladies, she was never able to reach a real understanding of life at a tough Camberwell primary. Offering to do a regular slot on Tuesday afternoons, reading to the reception children, she said plummily: "I've chosen Beatrix Pottah. All my younger gels loved Beatrix Pottah."

She stuck it out for a full half-hour, only losing her patience when a child sitting at her feet scrawled, in felt-tipped pen, on one of her suede shoes. "What is that?" she snapped. "Peter Rabbit," said the child. For the next few months she spent her volunteer time digging the school garden instead.

Times change, though, and governors with them. To cope with the massive load, a prospective governor today needs an enthusiasm bordering on insanity. Nevertheless, new governors do often have this sort of enthusiasm.

The morning after appointing two new parent governors, I found one pounding the playground beat, handing out questionnaires on school dinners, while making sure nobody parked on the zig-zags or smoked under the sheds, and letting parents know that if there was a complaint about the school, she'd be happy to act as mediator.

Sometimes, however, enthusiasm can be followed by a rude awakening. The other parent had volunteered to man the security camera which overlooks the front gate. He was astonished to see another parent on the video screen, slipping a two-litre bottle of school milk under her coat and disappearing rapidly down the street.

It can take time for governors to absorb the stark reality of school life. The outside toilets may be Victorian, one governor said, but couldn't we put decent toilet paper, in decent holders, on the cubicle walls? Couldn't the children have soap and paper towels? My premises officer explained that we'd tried it, and there were always problems.

"But the children are so well behaved here," she persisted. "I really think you should give it another try..." So we did, and I waited with bated breath.

By Thursday, it looked as if it had been snowing. Having watched the puppy on the telly unwinding a toilet roll all over the house, the infants had decided there was fun to be had from decorating the school garden with Sainsbury's best. By Friday, things had taken a more serious turn in the shape of William, an infant with a nastily gashed forehead. "We was playin' pirates," one of his friends explained. "William bashed 'is 'ead on the sink."

The strange paper hats they were wearing for this game had been fashioned from the new paper towels. Further probing revealed that the flat little bars of soap made deadly accurate missiles, and William had hidden under a sink where he'd thumped his forehead on the metal waste pipe. Three days and a mass of accident form-filling later, the governor agreed that perhaps it might be best if we returned to the old system, whereby all these materials were freely available from the duty helper's bag, but you had to ask first.

Once properly settled in, governors can be incredibly supportive. Take our first Ofsted inspection, for example. Two of the governors had turned up with large bottles of wine to celebrate what would undoubtedly be a very favourable report. The inspector rose to his feet. "This," he said with obvious pleasure, "is a good school!" The governors, unused to Ofstedspeak, stared at him blankly. "What do you mean, it's a good school?" said one. "We're a super school." There was a chorus of approval from the entire room.

The inspector tried to explain that "good" was high praise indeed. The governors weren't having any of that and bombarded the poor chap with a million reasons why he was selling us short. As the meeting drew to a close, I realised it was the first time I'd ever seen a governing body totally united.

When we met on a later occasion, the inspector admitted he'd crawled into his local hostelry later that evening, to be asked by his colleagues why he was looking so dreadfully ashen.

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

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school in Camberwell, south London

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