7th November 1997 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions

Q. I've been a parent governor in this high school only a year but I am experienced, having served in the primary school.

There, I felt my role was accepted - but this head is determined to run his own show. I have made quite a few points which are important to me and have been choked off.

One was a failure to discipline adequately a child who stole my son's anorak: he was excluded for three days after he had been caught and forced to apologise. I think thieves should be expelled and I wasn't a bit impressed to be told that this was a very poor family and that the child came to school with no warm clothing.

I also know for a fact that one teacher has set only a fraction of the scheduled homework in the past year, and hasn't yet marked any that has been set this term. He is well known to be bone idle and deserves to be disciplined, but it seems that the head merely gave him a serious warning and didn't even report that to all the governors. Finally, although our budget is tight, I know where a lot of school money is wasted, but nobody wants to listen.


I'm sure your concern is sincere but you really have got the wrong idea about the role of governors and about the influence that an individual governor can have.

Only the governing body acting together has power to advise, warn or change things. You also need to make sure that any involvement even of all of you is at the strategic or policy level. The head is appointed to run the school on a daily basis, which includes responding to breaches of rules, keeping teachers up to scratch and ensuring proper use of resources within agreed limits.

Where we come in is in framing policies to guide the staff and establishing systems to monitor how effective those policies are.

Think of it as a ship. It's the captain who decides how to punish a sailor found asleep on watch, but as directors of the shipping line you might together determine some guidelines on discipline. You don't order the crew about or fuel the boilers or check the lifebelts, but you might be watchful about staff moral, ensure that you know the overall level of fuel consumption, and see to it that there is a system for checking the lifebelts at agreed intervals to an agreed standard.

The governing body does have a chance to establish behaviour policies - and will soon be required to do so. These can include some judgments on the relative seriousness of particular offences. But the teacher must have discretion to apply them to the particular case, often with regard to special circumstances, and is in the end subject to the governing body's judgment in the case of an exclusion or formal complaint, though in the case you quote you personally would withdraw. (By the way, does your parents' association have any scheme for helping pupils who don't have the bare essentials to function in school, basic clothing or equipment? Some do. It has to be sensitive of course.) As for homework, you must ensure as a body that there is an accepted school policy and that it is somebody's job to check teachers' compliance: then you must trust that person. It sounds indeed as though the head may already be approaching the final stages in disciplinary procedure, but only the panel of governors elected for the purpose must be given such information so that you have others with no knowledge to hear an appeal later if necessary.

On the use of resources, you have general control of the budget, but cannot possibly watch over its use in detail. I am sure with your interest and energy you can help to sharpen your governing body up on any areas of policy where it has been lacking.

Joan Sallis's book Governors are People Like You deals fully with the nature of strategic intervention. It is published by ACE at Pounds 5 plus postage and packing from 1B Aberdeen Studios, 22-26 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ

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