25th July 2003 at 01:00
Joan Sallis answers governors' questions

My headteacher knows I am writing to you and I have told him my concerns.

We have two governors representing teaching staff and one representing the support staff. I know them well (as a long-serving chair who is very involved in the school outside meetings), and they are sensible people.

I am sure they could make a valuable contribution, and before I knew the head had a problem with it, I used to make a point of asking them how the staff felt about certain matters. They always replied non-committally, but I now know that the head has told them they are not allowed to speak at meetings, that he speaks for "the school", and that he is prepared to vet any statement they wish to make beforehand.

Am I right to be concerned? We will both accept what you say.

Yes, you are right to be concerned. I know there are many heads who feel threatened by uncensored debate, and with all the responsibilities they bear I can just about understand it, especially if they have had a disillusioning experience or two.

I am only surprised that after about 20 years of having statutory staff governors, some still haven't learned to live with it. I can only assure you that every individual appointed to a school governing body is there in his or her own equal and independent right, and that staff governors should not be treated differently from parents, church foundation governors, local authority or co-opted governors, who are all expected to contribute freely from their distinctive viewpoint.

What can I say to help your head accept this? First, it is healthier in the end if staff have a forum in which they can speak for colleagues on matters concerning the school - not purely individual workplace grievances as I often say, as there are other routes to solving these - and that in my experience it breeds loyalty rather than the reverse. Muttering can be much more subversive. Even worse, frustrated staff often quite wrongly approach individual governors.

It is also my experience that you get much better quality staff governors in a school where the head welcomes their contribution and there is no suspicion of a price to pay if you speak out of turn. The message soon gets round that it's a meaningless chore and you end up getting people who have nothing much to say anyway.

I have known schools go through cycles of effective and ineffective staff governors as headteachers change, and an outsider can often spot the reason straight away.

Second, I would always advise any governor, particularly a staff governor, to warn the head in advance if they feel bound to make an unexpected controversial statement about any major issue, or even repeat a critical comment they have heard outside. This is an act of courtesy that does no harm and may reassure those who find uncensored discussion a bit threatening. But it still must not be censorship.

The TES welcomes your queries. Joan Sallis does her best to answer all letters, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum, as we aim to provide helpful information for all readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals. Send your questions to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX; fax: 020 7782 3202

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