9th February 1996 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions.

I am a class teacher in a junior school. Naturally I accept that my lessons have to be observed by senior colleagues in my school or by an HMI or OFSTED inspector. But these are professionals who have at one time been teachers and they know their job. I was very distressed when without any warning a governor came into my lesson, sat at the back, and observed me for about half an hour. She didn't speak most of the time but in the middle she asked me a very silly question, namely why we were teaching history and geography in the same lesson. Do I have to put up with this or can I refuse? I am not sure that I want to be judged by an amateur.

I am a fairly new governor but keen. I want to be involved and in particular observe lessons. Of course I always tell the head when I propose to come and make sure it's convenient. I have had a few very good visits and found the teachers delightful. The last time I ran into trouble when the reception class teacher (who was new) refused to let me into her classroom and got really upset. She said nobody had said I was coming and that it would unsettle the children. What should I do?

These questions come up often. It is essential that governors spend time in classes if they are to make good decisions and be good ambassadors. But we are not inspectors and go in to learn. We must also remember that it is someone's workplace and not only be courteous but also ensure that teachers have been prepared and understand that individual governorsare not a threat to them, since individually we have no power at all.

Desirable though visiting a class is, the individual has no absolute right to visit. The governor either enters at the invitation of the head or in fulfilment of some governors' decision, for example to have a governor of the month or to have two school governors look at the special needs provision. It is the head's job to prepare the staff.

It's best if governors agree on a policy about visiting. But this does not let the visiting governor off proper communication and good manners, and the visit will be more useful if it is planned and focused.

In the case of my first questioner, I guess someone omitted to tell the teacher, and the best thing the governor can do is to apologise and accept that some breakdown in communication had taken place. A teacher cannot strictly speaking refuse to let a visitor into his or her class if the head requires it. At the same time it is a great pity if it has to come to that, and I always advise governors to accept that some teachers will be less confident and will find it threatening. It's far better to build on confidence and work to spread confidence, and I doubt if there's much profit to either party in forcing a governor on to a terrified teacher.

The teacher in Question 1 feels outraged that she should be subjected to observation by someone who is not a professional. It should be part of the head's role as a good manager to ensure that all staff know about the legal role of governors and in particular about the centuries-old tradition (and value) of representative lay people debating what children are taught ('what' not 'how'). At the same time governors should be careful not to ask questions which could be misinterpreted as a criticism. One of the reasons some governors involve themselves at an inappropriate level is that they are not encouraged at an appropriate one. If a governor goes into a reading class and rabbits on about phonics, he or she probably hasn't ever discussed the reading policy and its almost certain embrace of phonics, look-and-say, real books and the back of cornflake packets. But I scarcely need add that it is not always the governors' fault if they are not involved in policy.

It would be a poor reception class where the children would be unsettled by visiting adults.

We always tell parents in our exclusion letter that they may make representations to the governors, even if the exclusion is just for a day or two days. Presumably therefore we can over-ride the school if we think the punishment was excessive. What is the point of this, since it can only be after the event and we can't undo the punishment?

In the event of evidence coming to light after the exclusion which casts doubt on the grounds for it for instance about who provoked a fight it is very important to the child that the record is put straight. He or she should know that grown-ups too are accountable and can occasionally be wrong. The provision for an independent review also makes staff even more careful, if that is possible, to establish the facts. If in a rare case governors did rule the punishment unfair the exclusion would be removed from the child's record and this could be important. Apart from the formal aspect, a child who repeatedly gets into hot water does suffer for its cumulative effect when a more serious misdemeanour occurs, so the earlier offences could affect the final balance sheet.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to Agenda, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171-782 3200.


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