Melvyn Bragg is controller of arts for London Weekend Television, writer, presenter and editor of the South Bank Show on LWT, presenter of Start the Week on Radio 4, chair of Border Television and a novelist. He is a foundation governor at his old school, Nelson Thomlinson, in Wigton, Cumbria, formerly a grammar school and now a recently amalgamated comprehensive.
How do you manage being the governor of a school 350 miles from your London home?
I try to make meetings two or three times a year. I go to Cumbria regularly because my mother still lives there, in a house that backs on to the school gates. I'm in regular contact with the headteacher and my old history teacher, who is secretary of the board of governors. I'm there at the other end of the line for a "what do you think?" chat.
Why did you become a governor?
I'm there because I'm a guy who went to the school, came from a one-up, one-down, helped my dad in the pub before and after school, went to Oxford and went on to do one or two things. The headteacher asked me on to the governing body as an inspiration for the working-class children at the school.
What do you like most?
The meetings. I'm always so impressed by the amount of care governors and teachers take. It's the real voice of this country talking - careful, judicious - and like no other body I sit on. On other boards, people can be overly vociferous and boastful. But the governing body is different. There is a great deliberation on issues like, for instance, pupil exclusions, because these people (farmers, mothers, local industrialists, a politician) are close to the ground. They know the circumstances at close hand, they know that lives are affected, futures are affected by the decisions that they take. When I go away from meetings, I feel that this is what the best of this country is about.
What would you do to improve the job of governors?
In my experience of being a governor in a tiny area with the advantage of being cohesive, I can honestly say that governors are doing a tremendous job. I'm quite sure that there are different problems in inner-city or big schools. But as a system, governors as school managers work extremely effectively. Our head feels very supported by the governors, even when he has to take difficult decisions.
What should governors always do?
There's a clear line when governors should stand back and say "this is none of my business, I don't know about history or maths" or whatever.
What should governors never do?
Only in extreme circumstances should a governor question the headteacher's executive word. If they think he's failing, they should formally get rid of him. But basically, he's their man and they should back him and shouldn't falter in their support. To back down from that position means running the risk of screwing the whole school up.
What is your hope for your school?
All I want is for these kids not to feel that they're cut off from Oxford and Cambridge because they come from Wigton Council Estate. My little role is to say "you can do it".