They're called meddling amateurs or wannabe inspectors. And their critics are teachers, the very people they're trying to help. Alison Shepherd makes a plea for greater understanding
When I started planning this article, I thought I'd go for irreverence, poke a bit of fun at the self-inflated do-gooders who take on the role of governor. Just as it is fine for Jackie Mason to make Jewish jokes, I reasoned, I should be able to have a laugh at those who think they run our schools. But a quick glance at the staffroom message board on The TES website changed my mind. Teachers appear to hold governors in such low regard that any attempt at satire based on grotesques would backfire. Ask around the staffroom: at best, staff governors will be ambivalent; the rest will pour scorn on the whole concept. So, in a possibly futile attempt to add a bit of balance to your colleagues' likely venom, here is one chair's guide to school governing bodies.
The first charge you hear against all things gubernatorial is: how does a bunch of meddling amateurs get to run a school? Or as one TES forum poster puts it: "Why should professionals be forced to be under Mrs Mudge of the community when she only does what her headteacher tells her, and last went to school herself in 1935?"
Teachers do not have a monopoly on professionalism. Mrs Mudge may well be getting on, but she has a wealth of experience that a school can draw on.
There is a world outside the school gate that once could be ignored, but no longer. Lay governors can bring valuable financial, personnel, legal and health and safety knowledge to the school. And they have a strong community network on which to call that no senior management team could hope to replicate. And don't forget that every board includes representatives directly employed by the school.
That website complaint is the first in a series of contradictions of the teachers' lament and points to a very unhealthy siege mentality. The headteacher is obviously a professional but, in this argument, is still not to be trusted and will dominate all those around them. So lay governors meddle and heads bully - who is left to run the schools?
The second complaint you hear goes along these lines: "It's absolutely disgraceful for qualified teachers to be observed by people without any educational experience or qualifications." This is probably the most damaging misconception. Governors are not inspectors. We do not judge teaching, classroom control or any such thing. School visits are for governors to get a feel for the school, its ethos. A feel for how staff and pupils interact. To get an idea of how resources are used and what more is needed. If you are observed at work and feel that inappropriate monitoring has taken place, take it up with your teacher governor, head of department or head. It is likely that the governor needs reminding to stay on the right side of a fine line.
This also has its flip side: "Very few govs actually ever enter the classroom to see the reality". Damned if we doI Third on the whine list is "Most governors are on ego trips or just trying to improve their CVs." Yes, of course there are those who stand on the governing body for self-serving reasons or because they like the sound of their own voice. But then not every teacher has a Mother Teresa-like vocation either. As an educational journalist I have to declare an interest - I will, after all, earn a crust for this article. But my job also means I can keep up-to-date with all the policies without having to find time outside my working life. And, yes, there will be occasions when being a governor can further a professional career, but then why not? Most of us don't charge expenses for the work we do.
It seems to me that the teachers who see governors as a threat are employing the age-old tactic of kicking those they consider to be more lowly. I appreciate the anger that stems from being bombarded with too many initiatives and then standing by as someone else takes the glory and none of the blame. Of hearing all of society's ills laid end to end at your classroom door. Of being asked to do more and more while struggling to meet the bills.
Remember, it is not necessarily the governors' fault. We too live under the same regime; we too are shell-shocked. If you could see us as individuals, for the most part doing our best for you and your pupils, we could break this destructive cycle of anger and blame.
Alison Shepherd is chair of governors at a north-east London primary school