14th September 2001 at 01:00
We have a new head in our large city primary. How can we ensure that he doesn't, like his predecessor, marginalise governors? The retiring head had outstanding talent but demoralised us. She took every chance to by-pass the governing body, and dismissed amateur "interference". Yet she wasn't always right and there were times when we had good ideas and tried to be critical friends. But she thought the system put a brake on the progress of a good school while being incapable of improving a bad one. The frustration drove good governors away.

What a bad experience. But don't assume the new head will repeat it.

I hope that, when you interviewed candidates, you ensured that this head would be different. I hope, too, that in preparation for headship your new man will have been given real insights into the present system of running schools and some instruction on how to work with governors.

Is there a sympathetic senior staff member who could gently reinforce this process and influence him, emphasising particularly that frustration has lost you good colleagues?

A refusal by some heads to accept accountability to "amateurs"shows a deep misunderstanding of the role of the so-called "amateur". Whether it is in Parliament, local councils, boards of directors, the magistracy or the jury, decisions and policy are made by representatives of ordinary people. It is deep in our culture and, apart from that, it is the law of the land. It is also protection against the hazards confronting a self-managing school, and, at its best, can create wiser and more responsive schools.

But governors sometimes get hold of the wrong script too. You mention "critical friendship", but remember it is the role of the governing body to act together, not as individuals - nobody needs 20 critical friends. Individual governors have no power to change anything, and a number do misunderstand that.

Also we must be sure to pitch our interventions at the right level, strategic not operational. The head must be free to manage the space, the time, the staff day-by-day; to communicate on behalf of the school; and to maintain an orderly learning environment. Our task is to build the framework of policy that guides head and staff in these operational roles. I am not suggesting that you and your colleagues have transgressed in any way, but at this critical moment you need to make it clear that you know your role. You have to adopt a gentle and reasonable stance that does not reflect your bad experiences.

Find the best time to say something challenging if you must, put any critical remark in a context of loyalty and praise. Use questions rather than statements, suggestions rather than comments. Support your head, without compromising on your right to be involved. Value and seek the best for teachers, and don't forget to praise. Good luck.

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