24th January 1997 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions. Q. The varying quantity and suitability of homework is the subject of constant griping to governors. Any mention of it to the head or the teachers provokes an explosion of some kind, and especially the retort that the academic work is not the governors' concern. But parents expect us to do something. Is it true that this is outside our powers? How can we handle it?

A. Governors are responsible for the academic standards of the school in general, and this makes sense only if they are involved in the policies which maintain and underpin those standards. Also, on a matter which concerns them so deeply, parents should be able to respond to and pass on concerns brought to them. A good secondary school will have a clear homework policy drawn up in consultation with governors and parents and published. It is good practice to have a day-book or homework diary to provide dialogue between staff and parents.

It is an exceptional secondary school which does not from time to time get complaints on homework, and a few will be justified. Teachers are human, work very hard, and will not all maintain the highest standards every day. Therefore it is essential to have standards to which all parties can relate their experience and some sensible means of communicating, rather than outbursts whenever a teacher doesn't set homework, sets it and doesn't mark it, or sets something of little value. I would go further and say that there should be one member of the senior management team within every school, known to parents and governors, with overall responsibility for listening to concerns about homework and following them up, at least after direct approaches have failed. It is part of the culture of a good school that parents, governors and senior staff feel able to bring up these matters without fear of adverse reactions, where staff at all levels wear an invisible badge saying, "I am not perfect".

Q. We need some expertise to call on when dealing with personnel matters, even more than finance. We couldn't recruit a suitable governor because of the time commitment, but we think we have found a personnel officer from industry who could help on a committee. Any objection?

A. There is no legal reason why you should hold back. All governors' committees may co-opt non-voting members. I agree with you about personnel. Employment law and practice seem to get ever more complicated, and it is possible for governors to make more serious mistakes than in any other function. In any case, it can be healthy to have the odd breath of cold air from the outside world.

Three warnings. First, a non-voting member must not influence others on anything beyond facts and professional practices. Second, you will from time to time have to discuss confidential matters, and non-governors will have to leave. Ensure that your recruit knows this at the outset. Third, bear in mind that sometimes when you most need him or her it will not be possible to draw on his or her expertise.

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