23rd April 2004 at 01:00
answers governors' questions

Our head, who has only been with us a year, keeps us at arm's length.

Nothing new in that, I hear you say. But I'm not just writing about this but about how he upsets teachers. It used to be a happy school where staff felt appreciated, but now those of us who are in and out of the school a lot, particularly parent governors, get approached all the time by disaffected teachers saying how bad the atmosphere is, how unsympathetically they are treated, subject to unfair decisions, overworked, and victimised. We listen sympathetically but we have no idea how to deal with these complaints. Should we bring them up under any other business or ask for teacher morale to be put on the agenda? What if the teachers concerned are identifiable? Will they be punished for talking to governors?

This isn't, I'm sorry to say, the first time I have been asked this question. Schools are very close communities where emotions tend to be near the surface. Teachers mostly work hard in close contact with each other; there will often be just a few whose work doesn't come up to standard; working with children is often very draining; and above all there are a few heads who really are hard to please and don't go about raising morale and effectiveness. Sometimes leadership is perceived as being out-the-front or up-on-top, rather than the centre of a series of concentric circles of different interest groups to inspire, to communicate objectives and skills to, build good relationships among and motivate to high performance.

Result, a nagging head. It is tempting for teachers to approach friendly governors when they feel hard done by. But it achieves nothing except the frustration in which you have written, and should be discouraged in a sympathetic way and with an explanation as follows.

Firstly, governors can't do anything directly about these complaints without risking identifying the source, have no means of verifying them, and in any case it isn't the governing body's job to intervene in working relationships at this level of detail. Secondly, we are there to work through strategic issues, to monitor the school's overall performance, devise systems which result in fair practices and harmonious and productive relationships, and - very occasionally - to settle disputes which are formally referred to us.

Staff have representatives on the governing body whose role includes bringing up any serious general questions about how staff are treated where there is dissatisfaction, and their constituents must use them in these cases. There are also grievance procedures for individuals who have a personal complaint they wish governors to consider. Very often parent governors will be the target for any passing resentments because they are in and out of the school, friendly and unthreatening. But on their own they can do very little and could easily make matters worse. You need to concentrate on building a better relationship between the governing body and the head and winning back the role the law intends. From the strength which this brings you can perhaps make the school a happier place.

Listening to individual grievances is not conducive to such a relationship and is very unlikely to be of help to the complainants.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see where answers to the submitted questions will appear

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