12th April 1996 at 01:00
Joan Sallis answers governors' questions. As the elected parent governor in this aided school I am worried about the way our scheme for parent help in classes is developing, though you may not think it governors' business at all.

Everyone is strongly in favour of parental involvement in classrooms staff and governors but it has taken a turn which almost leads me to think it should be stopped now. In the former head's time it worked so smoothly, everybody was friendly, newcomers were welcomed, helpers did whatever jobs teachers most wanted done and were flexible. We never had any complaints about gossip either,and all benefited.

Now a very noticeable clique have taken over. They are bossy and find reasons why new recruits shouldn't come in, even saying privately that they are untidy in their dress or speak ungrammatically for instance. They are possessive about their jobs, like saying they don't want to help the infants undress for PE because they are experienced reading helpers. That's just one example. They have been known to gossip about particular children being poor readers, not being clean, sent to school with jam sandwiches. Even home problems which the children innocently confide are being spread around. The new young head favours the scheme but is concerned how to tackle this. She knows I am writing.

Anything which seriously affects a school's relationship with parents is governors' business, though I don't think this needs referral in a formal sense. I agree with you that this situation is intolerable. I assume you are not a classroom helper yourself: if you were I'm sure you would speak out against this snobbish, self-important and unkind behaviour.

I would guess that the former head was an experienced operator who knew how to manage things unobtrusively, and that the new head made the innocent assumption that anything that was working so well didn't need any intervention. Easily done. but parental help does need invisible diplomatic management. Like almost everything else in a school, it does not manage itself.

The key is regular communication of expectations: that helpers will observe professional standards of confidentiality, about the children in their care; that they will value all children equally; that they will welcome all new helpers; and that they will endeavour to do the jobs which are most necessary and useful.

I think the time has come for your head to have a briefing with the helper group, perhaps at the beginning of term, with this unwritten agenda. Why don't you suggest it? She can directly encourage others to volunteer and tactfully make it clear to the present group that this is her job. She may feel that she would like to raise the matter with the governing body first, reporting the problems which have arisen and setting out her intentions. Some of the helpers may not like this turn of events and some may drop out. I see it is an infants school so the present group will not be parents all that long anyway. If the response to the briefing makes it seem a good idea, a fresh start might be engineered by making it clear in passing as the summer break approaches that the scheme is for current parents and that replacements will be needed. At the beginning of the school year the head could then issue a friendly appeal for helpers, stressing that no special skills are needed, and that all are welcome. Briefing of the whole group can then naturally follow, backed-up of course by vigilance on a day-to-day basis. Class teachers should be assured that they will be supported if any problems arise.

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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