12th May 1995 at 01:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions. Apart from governor of the month, adopting a class, shadowing a pupil of teacher, attachment to a subject area, and meeting in a different classroom each time, have you any more ideas on getting to know our school?

If you've done any of these faithfully you've done well. Recently I heard of a primary school in which the governors undertook to attend for 10 half-days from Monday to Friday whenever their circumstances allowed. Thus, a monthly half-day visit enabled a governor to see a school's whole weekly routine in about a year.

I often think the preparation for a big event can be more interesting than the event. The day before the harvest festival or the last rehearsal for the play, for instance. Or half-an-hour before 9am in the staffroom, or the general office if they'll let you, is a great way of seeing the nuts and bolts.

ways of involving governors who genuinely find it hard to get in often in the day can include parents' meetings on curriculum areas, options, behaviour problems, or careers, and school clubs and activities including Saturday sporting fixtures.

Don't neglect written material either. A named folder for each governor into which the school office routinely slips all communications to parents is a cheap and effective way of keeping in touch for those who are not current parents.

This comprehensive is in a Labour area; three LEA governors represent the party. After our 1993 exam results - which were not bad overall but below standard in science and modern languages - the staff concerned, with two parent governors, began a review of pupil grouping which had always been mixed ability. They recommended unanimously that in those subjects pupils should be regrouped in sets according to attainment after six months in the school.

Some parents - those of the abler pupils, of course - had pressed for setting for some time. I think most governors would back the staff, left to themselves, but the Labour group says that it is against the comprehensive principle and that, in any case, the LEA will veto the change if the governors will not do so. Can they do this, and where do governors stand?

An interesting question, since ability grouping in secondary schools, like age grouping in primaries, figures more than any other issue in disputes about "who decides". One could argue that they are decisions about the organisation of classes and the use of staff and, therefore, internal management. On the other hand, they have such wide implications for effective curriculum policy, the ethos of the school and the responsiveness of the school to parent and public opinion, that they involve at least three basic responsibilities of governors.

I have no doubt that for professionals to try to impose change without broad consent is monumental folly, even without the political issues which sometimes make ability grouping so sensitive. I would think it equally dangerous for governors to try to impose change on professionals. In short, it is an area where every effort must be made to achieve a negotiated outcome. I really do not think the LEA could claim the right to dictate to schools how they organise their teaching in a post-LMS world, so the decision rests with governors and staff.

Finally, before I leave the legalities, I would say that as a general principle, those who want to introduce change, whether it is staff or governors, have the greater responsibility to prove that it is justified.

In your school the staff have wisely involved some governors in the early debate. That will probably lead to all the parent group supporting them. They have also been addressing a particular problem and have presumably considered other factors, such as resourcing, choice of exam syllabus, orgnisation and quality of teaching. This enables them to show, along with the partial nature of the change, that they have not been motivated by political considerations a powerful weapon when convincing non-political governors in an argument with ideology on the other side.

You also have in your favour the evidence that most comprehensives now have some setting, and that with the requirement to teach science and a modern language throughout the age range, many have had to look again at how they organise the teaching. I would think that with all these strengths you would have no difficulty in convincing a majority of your governors that the pressure of the lea group should be resisted. If you can't, you just have to take longer over it and argue it more effectively.

One warning. Sometimes the hidden price tag on setting is that with the pressure to do the best for exam groups you get the slowest sets taught by the weakest teachers. Don't let this happen. And one hint. Make sure to point out that the setting will not be inflexible and that pupils can be moved if their attainment warrants it.

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