12th September 2003 at 01:00
Throughout the past school year a group of us, including all the parent governors, have been concerned about standards. We know there is national concern about not meeting targets at key stage 2 and our school is no exception to the general decline.

The children's performance at all levels has been deteriorating, and so has their behaviour. In fairness to him, our head is not making light of this but we feel that he ought to be a bit tougher with the teachers, and this isn't easy to say.

We decided that those who were interested should meet informally during the holiday. The head heard about it and was furious. He said it was improper to do this when only about a third of governors even knew about it, that we were creating a rift and were attacking him behind his back. I assure you we had only the best intentions and I was upset, as chair, by this attack.

The head is happy that I write to you for a ruling.

I don't know about a ruling, it isn't that sort of issue, but I'll give you my view. I wouldn't use the word "improper" but on the principle I agree with your head.

I'm sure that you meant well and I know that it is sometimes difficult to handle simmering concerns about the school when you suspect that open criticism will not be well received. I wish there were more heads who would go out of their way to make governors feel easier about raising concerns at proper meetings.

Having said that, all my experience is that when a group of governors starts to meet by arrangement outside the normal framework - and I know it is not possible or natural to stop individuals "talking school" when they happen to meet - it is bad news.

It destroys trust and is likely to cause lasting harm to the work of the governing body. In particular, to meet when the staff governors are unable to attend gives a bad message. The whole governing body is responsible in law for improving the school's performance, and trends should be openly and systematically discussed.

I hope your head accepts this too and does his part to ensure that it happens. Despite the difficulty of speaking freely within a body of assorted interests, all of us must accept that this is the body to which the task of school improvement has been given, and frank and well-informed exchange is the only way to achieve it.

You say that management of teachers is weak, and you clearly understand that the day-by-day responsibility for teacher performance is the head's, not the governing body's. But I doubt whether the situation is that simple.

There will be a number of contributory factors, including a possibly changing intake, and also developments which are affecting other schools besides yours. The chief inspector David Bell referred recently to the inequalities in the ways children were prepared before they reach school age, and there have also been rumbles of concern about the tests themselves and their influence on teaching.

Some factors a school can influence, others it has to accept, but these are all things which we must discuss openly.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 0171 782 32023205, or see governorsask_ the_expert where answers to submitted questions will appear

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