29th October 1999 at 01:00
Q: I KNOW this must be a chestnut, but what are our responsibilities on homework? Our parents don't hesitate to complain if the school falls down in any way. Homework comes up regularly as a matter on which some staff are, shall we say, less conscientious than others, and we as parent governors get it in the neck. We also get it in the neck if we convey this dissatisfaction to the head or staff member concerned.

You always say that we mustn't intervene in the running of the school but we are between the devil and the deep blue sea here, given our responsibility for standards.

A: YOU put the question clearly, but it is not an easy one. As in everything. we must do our best to tackle the issue at the level of policy and procedure rather than get drawn into being tale-bearers. Our responsibility for standards is to ensure that there is a clear homework policy setting out what is expected of children, staff and parents, and it is followed through in the home-school agreement.

A good policy sets out the purposes of homework, the amounts expected each evening and the target marking times. Communication with parents is via a day book, homework diary, planner or similar device. Parents should know which days are allotted to particular subjects, how much time the task is expected to take, and have a place to make their comments.

But it is also important that as part of this policy there is one member of staff - perhaps the deputy responsible for the curriculum - who is known to parents to be responsible for homework policy and in particular staff standards of marking, making - or ensuring line managers make - regular spot checks of books as well as listening to feedback. He or she might routinely discuss with the chair of the governors' curriculum committee how things are going in this area of school life, and be alerted to any persistent problems. This is as far as I would go towards direct governor involvement: it is just not fair to individual governors or teachers to allow or expect governors to carry tales.

If schools have to have a proper complaints procedure - and it is very sad that the Government has postponed requiring this - this is where it would operate well, with the governors only being involved when the complainant is not satisfied, and then only within a proper investigative process.

Consider what more you could do to establish appropriate policies and procedures, and, above all, to inform parents of what the school does to secure high standards. Often it is when parents don't know this that they get most agitated about teachers and sloppy marking. Just knowing it is somebody's job to check up helps.

I think also that it is good practice for the head to talk to the whole parent body sometimes - perhaps before parent governor elections - about what governors do and what it is reasonable to expect of them. Increasingly, I see parent governors under unreasonable pressure to take up purely individual concerns. It isn't our job; it isn't a good way to get a solution; and it puts heads on the defensive.

Q: OUR maths GCSE results were far below the rest. It seems clear to us that the faculty head is not up to the job. Now that we have evidence what can we do?

A: If weaknesses have been evident for some time I would hope that some action is already being taken, ie first investigation, then extra support and guidance, or, in a clear-cut case when all else has failed, the beginnings of a competency process. That should begin with warnings, go on to target-setting, and may in extreme cases lead to dismissal.

If, on the other hand, this result is a one-off, I would urge you not to judge hastily. You do get these blips and next year it might be

science or languages. That does not mean ignore the results, since I hope that you always sit down with the senior staff to analyse school performance not only to look at every possible explanation for a disappointing outcome but also to see what you can learn. There are many things beside teacher-quality which could be implicated, including the exam board and course, the ability profile of the pupils, the size and mix of groups and the time and scope the faculty head has for monitoring and improving teaching. These are true strategic questions appropriate to governors: it is not our job to judge teaching quality as such.

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