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Teachers are a head's best friend

Critics of teacher governors should use a bit of common sense, argues John Bangs

The 1997 School Teachers' Review Body report has reopened the debate on the role of teacher governors. It argues that teacher governors should not be on committees that determine the pay of headteachers and deputies.

"In our view," the STRB says, "it is incompatible with normal principles of management responsibility and accountability for subordinates to be directly involved in determining the pay of those to whom they report."

The wording suggests teacher governors are anxious to undermine their headteachers' hard-earned spine points, and it also implies that it is incompatible for teacher governors to discuss other critical issues.

I believe there is no evidence to support the STRB's views. Teacher governors attempt genuinely to reflect the views of staff and do not see that responsibility as a source of conflict with their headteachers. It is teacher governors who usually provide the most consistent support to heads who face hostile governors.

The best working relationships between headteachers and teacher governors occur when there is a mutual acknowledgement of the different strengths in the two roles. For example, it is useful when headteachers and teacher governors meet to "clear lines" before governing body meetings.

But the real value of teacher governors is that they are uniquely positioned to give an accurate picture of staff morale. Such assessments of mood are usually offered in response to externally imposed changes or interventions, such as inspections or government-imposed initiatives. Direct or implicit criticism of headteachers' actions is very rare; most teacher governors speak only when they are sure of their ground.

One of the greatest pressures on teacher governors is the expectation that they are more likely to have to declare an interest than the other governors. Such an assumption is wrong. It is other governors who more often have to examine their consciences when, say, competitive tendering is being discussed.

I suspect that for some headteachers the existence of teacher governors is an unacceptable anomaly. Some heads feel threatened because teacher governors have the same rights and responsibilities as other governors (with the exception of not being allowed to chair meetings of governing body sub-committees with delegated powers).

Such views are remarkably short-sighted. Governing bodies as a whole are now responsible for ensuring that schools are effective. Heads can find themselves isolated. Even the best head cannot predict the behaviour and actions of individual governors.

It is a foolish headteacher who ignores the potential of the teacher governors as allies. Indeed, in the area of headteachers' pay, the teacher governor is more likely to support the head's case than not.

The Secretary of State is right to say "common sense generally prevails" when it comes to teacher governors. Yet many teacher governors are unsure of their role. They often lack confidence about using the mechanisms available to find information or to challenge unacceptable statements from other governors.

That "common sense" should be recognised by government and supported by advice after full consultation. There are no advantages for governing bodies or headteachers in undermining the role of teacher governors.

John Bangs is assistant secretary (education and equal opportunities) of the National Union of Teachers. He was chair of governors of a primary school in Greenwich for eight years and is now a local education authority governor in a Lewisham secondary school

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