A little trust from the top goes a long way
You know how it is: you were out of school most of yesterday and all sorts of things have come up.
You've been to another McCrone meeting, and the union rep has a problem: there's been a major breakdown in relations and two of your staff are at each other's throats.
The director wants to see you in a couple of hours, and you're speaking at an important national conference tomorrow. There are two sets of parents to see about exclusions, and the local councillor is breathing down your neck about litter in the area. The media are on the phone wanting to visit you as they are preparing a documentary on a sensitive issue, which you don't want reflecting back on the school.
In 10 minutes your school board chair is coming, and she's already told you in an email she has several issues that the board felt you did not satisfy them about at last week's meeting. You suspect the usual old nutshells; yes, it'll be pupil councils again. You don't have time for this. Neither does your senior management team, and you've explained the ins and outs at the board a dozen times.
Wrong. She does want to discuss pupil representation again, and a whole host of other things the board members got fired up about in the pub afterwards. But this headteacher will make time for her gladly, as he is going to get something out of this encounter. Co-operation for one thing. I am that board chair. And I appreciate all those calls on his time I've just listed. I still spent an hour with my beleaguered headteacher that he could ill afford, but I might have given him some new ideas that will progress old "problems", and I am prepared to shoulder some of the work they may entail, to be imaginative and not just add to the work of the SMT.
I attend every P7 intake meeting and every S1 parents' first feedback night, I organise joint meetings for the feeder primary boards as part of the induction programme, I attach myself to a year group and attend their assemblies and pupil councils. I am sending out a message that the school welcomes parents and listens to their concerns individually or through the board. I listen to them talking in the street and canvass the parents we don't see in school to find out about the silent majority.
I am an independent agent, with a legally enshrined right and responsibility to support the school in raising standards. So, although I can be a loose cannon, I have a platform to say things and raise issues with the authorities that are difficult for the school to broach, and I can galvanise the parent body.
Our head has had boards in the past which have had agendas that differ from his. Off the record, he's soothing us and communicating other messages. I know that, but he seems to be enjoying our company. Now we've been through the fire together, we can be pretty honest with each other and his openness is unrivalled. If I want information, I get the lot - and now I know he doesn't withhold it and that I don't need it all, I can rely on being given the important stuff when I ask for it. I can meet or talk to anyone on the staff. What do I get out of it? Well, lots actually. Confidence and interpersonal skills. A deeper understanding of the school and how to support and promote its work. I take responsibility and gain rights.
I gain influence on behalf of parents in the school through appointments panels, and having a position of trust. What's my agenda? The same as yours. I've gone native! But I do have to be utterly scrupulous in remembering not to advance personal opinions that favour me personally rather than the greater good. I lose lots of spare evenings, live, eat and breathe school, and embarrass my children.
Getting this year's pupil councils off the ground? I told him straight how disappointed the board is. But I know the SMT are up to their eyes and it's another job with a lowish priority. I think the board parents could organise them and transmit the nitty-gritty to the SMT. I think we could analyse the heaps of questionnaires back from the pupil surveys, I think we could co-opt a senior pupil to the board which may be a more effective way of discussing pupils' concerns, and promoting positive projects. It could maybe save time.
I think I have a pretty special relationship with my headteacher. But it needn't be. Parents and head- teachers should step out of their boxes a bit more, talk pro-actively and try to create some unexpected spin-offs.
The author chairs a school board in the west of Scotland.