13th May 2005 at 01:00
We were a bit put out when our new headteacher said he would not be a governor. This had not been raised at interview - in fact, we didn't know it was an option. Even now we do not know the implications. He comes to all our meetings -committees included - and plays a full part, and is a bit more proactive than our last head. He expresses strong opinions on most matters, some of them very controversial - for example, on becoming a specialist school, going for a private finance initiative extension, returning to setting - which we had voted to stop only last year. He is also quite forceful when others don't agree. We need to know a bit more about the pros and cons, what we should accept and what we ought to question. Do you think heads should be able to opt out of full commitment in this way?

This option causes a lot of problems. If I had been writing the law, I should not have included it. But, for better or worse, the option is there.

It would have been as natural to rule that the head should be an ex officio member and that would be that. The issue has come up many times in my correspondence and at heads' conferences.

The surprising conclusion the actual cases point to is that the supporters of the opt-out option and those who have taken that road themselves tend to be less easy with the governing body having such a key role - the ones who would like to have more personal authority, not less. That is what comes out of what heads and governors say, but I do not want to make too much of it because they are a minority to start with. Even so, this is such a vital matter that governors would be well advised to find out candidates'

intentions at interview. In fairness, I must add that a few say they choose to stand aside because they believe they can be more helpful as professional advisers than as members. That is an honourable stance to take but it is not such an easy one to maintain in practice.

So, what is a non-member head's role? First, he or she has an unquestioned right to attend all meetings of the governing body. Non-member heads have no vote, and I would say they have to be very careful about how far they try to influence those who do. They should express their opinions in a moderate way, and in most cases they should confine interventions to matters of fact and professional practice.

It is especially important when the issues are very political and you quote two good examples - changing the status of the school and PFI. Sets versus mixed-ability is different because, although it is political with a small "p", it is also open to the evidence of professional experience and judgement, so it is particularly tricky to draw lines on.

Many of the issues with which governors must deal are on the borderline of professional practice and policy. When a non-governor headteacher oversteps that line it can make the work difficult. I also believe that it can put a strain on relationships. Some governors would interpret the decision not to be a governor - not always fairly - as a certain lack of commitment to the governors' role. Right or wrong, this view damages the relationship, and this could be crucial if it so happened that a head particularly needed the support of governors.

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 the website: where answers will appear

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