In the talking shop

As I glance at the assembled governors, a subtle game of cat and mouse gets under way. My mission, as chair, is to get through our agenda effectively. I have visualised a meeting of an hour and a half's duration, full of robust discussion that results in clear conclusions to which we are all committed. But I know that lurking among our number is a car park enthusiast.

Such governors obtain perverse pleasure from taking the floor at unexpected moments. I once watched a chair of finance pause to draw breath in the closing moments of the budget presentation when an interjection stopped him dead.

"All this money for extra teaching is great but I'm really worried about the car park. I heard about an incident just yesterday when a parent drove in too quickly. What are we going to do about that?"

With the moment seized and apparently shocking new information shared, I was helpless to prevent what followed. For the next 40 minutes, we rehashed a vintage discussion - what to do about the school's car park?

It is not always the car park. At some schools the same function will be performed by minor issues relating to the uniform or historic relations with neighbouring secondaries; poor support from the local authority or the baleful trajectory of education policy.

These are the subjects on which every governor has a heartfelt opinion, debate about which simply cannot be concluded in a useful way. Such discussions are to purposeful meetings as a burst artery is to the circulatory system.

But car park issues have a power all their own. Committed as I am to swerving their potholes, sometimes even my guard slips. Departing from the rails of good meeting management, I fill my lungs to provide a detailed survey of our interest in the subject to date, with reminders of previous initiatives to address the issue, all laced with sideswipes at those who have thwarted my historic suggestions to ameliorate the situation.

Such is the oratorical power of my "address to the car park" that it can revive a discussion to which every governor present has already fulsomely contributed. That any topic exhibits such a life force, however, means that, on occasion, it can be deployed to unhelpful ends. The formal responsibility of a chair of any meeting might well be to ensure that those present can scrutinise, interrogate and contribute to its business effectively. But I have witnessed disastrous personnel issues, poor end-of-year results and even financial irregularities overshadowed by a distraction debate.

Scant energy remains once a meeting has twisted itself into a rage for an hour. With passions spent, even the most gladiatorial governors are rendered meek.

The lesson, if you are looking for one, is this. Letting off steam is the opposite of applying pressure. Effective interventions in any meeting require that it is the latter to which you should devote yourself - even if the occasional detour to the car park proves irresistible.

Tim Dawson is a journalist and chair of governors at Castle Hill Junior School in Ipswich, England

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