19th January 1996 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions. Governors are being urged by the Department for Education and Employment and OFSTED to ask questions about school performance such as "are some parts of the schoolgroups of pupils doing better than others?" The Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, says that it is the simple questions which enable governors to discharge their function of strategic direction, because they "challenge the assumptions which those of us who work in education can take too much for granted". Surely questions need to be well-informed and well-directed to monitor the school's effectiveness?

I agree entirely with Chris Woodhead's statement, but I know that many teachers scoff at the whole idea of non-professionals having anything relevant to say about matters needing four years' training and many years of experience.

Yet very learned people can miss the obvious, and it has been accepted for centuries that, while the techniques and methodology of teaching require special skill, there has to be oversight by representatives of the public of its content, its framework of policies and its effectiveness.

I would also accept your statement that questions must be well-informed and well-directed, even if not in fine detail. I continue to be surprised at the speed with which governors grasp enough about the processes of the school to have a good idea when something needs a watchful eye - and even of what buttons need pressing and levers pulling to effect change.

Skilled heads and teachers can help them by ensuring that they do not drown in detail and that all the information they receive is genuinely directed towards a critical strategic view: such professionals will be rewarded by good questions and informed support, just as those who, whether intentionally or otherwise, blind governors with science get the governors they deserve.

Indeed I would go as far as to say that those teachers who think clearly about what they are doing will express it in bold strategic terms and that too much detail often marks the less than first rate.

The old metaphor of the curriculum as a garden lends itself to some good analogies, especially if you assume a public garden with governors as trustees. Governors don't have to take over a virgin plot, but a going concern more or less in working order. The curriculum like a garden is organic, always changing, and at any time some areas will become overcrowded, some kinds of plants won't thrive as well as others, and some parts may even need re-design.

Someone with an innocent but critical eye may be struck by these things, and debate them with the experts on behalf of the providers and the public. It isn't that observer's job to oversee or direct the daily work of the gardeners: that is the head gardener's job. But there is still room for oversight and a fresh perspective. But please don't think I am saying that governors don't need to learn a lot about gardens. We all do.

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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