Breaking through the pain barrier
I could not get so excited about The TES Annual Report Award if it were just a way for a bunch of lively governors to demonstrate their inborn journalistic skills and their good fortune in knowing a local printer.
It has to be a process by which governors move on, realise their potential for teamwork and learn to take seriously their accountability to parents. If this means moving through a pain barrier, it is even more special.
That is how I came to spend a day at the Wyche Primary Controlled School, founded in 1869. It's a beautiful school in a breath-taking setting, recently extended and stylishly modernised.
The proximity of the Defence Research Agency in Great Malvern, employing some 2,000 scientists, produces a profusion of young families, education-conscious, supportive of their children and potentially of their schools.
Such a parent is Paul Southern, who will soon have completed two years as a parent governor. He is at the centre of a group which is discovering how collaboration to produce a report which has something to say - and says it -can, in time, change the way governors feel about their job.
I spoke, perhaps surprisingly, of pain. I once sensed it in the report of a TES Annual Report Award winner and was bold enough to say so when I met one of the parent governors receiving the winner's cheque. "However did you know?" she asked. I have no idea, but the sense of a school on the road again after a period of despair was unmistakable.
The Wyche had its pain in late 1993 and early 1994. The previous head left the school on health grounds after a period of absence and there was a danger of serious budget deficit. In the next two years, for reasons quite unrelated to this, the school changed its entire teaching staff, the school secretary and five governors.
The new head, Jill Wytcherley, now presides over a happy, busy, orderly school with clear aims and sure-footed management, as well as a governing body which is gradually changing from a group of individuals into a purposeful team.
My interest is in the part that the annual report writing has played in this process. The Wyche governors' report for 1992-93 is, like thousands more, a closely-typed A4 document containing all the information legally required, giving a fairly full account of the school's activities and thanking lots of people. It was written by the chair and is a conscientious and well-written document.
The 1993-94 version is a team effort edited jointly by three parent governors, an attractive A5 booklet which sets out to "demystify" the governors. It contains interesting profiles of them all, is readable and friendly in tone, has lots of children's work particularly well related to national curriculum themes, and says something about how the governors work. It would not have been an award-winner but is typical of the huge improvement in reports since the competition started.
But the important thing is that it gave governors the experience of working together informally, bringing several of them into the school to collect material and building closer relationships with staff.
The 1994-95 report currently being put together by a team of six will build on this experience. The biggest difference, says Paul Southern, is that everyone realised they needed to start sooner. You cannot expect staff to respond good-naturedly when you are nagging about material at a time convenient to you but often impossible for them. The planning began in April for October publication - and that probably isn't long enough.
The biggest change of emphasis has been to involve the pupils in preparing specific material and to give more space to humour. Staff have been collecting funny sayings, and governors have been in school making their own choices of material. I was a delighted participator in this process.
The school's football team won the local schools championship, and this is a big theme, with a talented young cartoonist illustrating it. Pupils are asked what they are proud of in the school, to give ideas for themes. The children know what it is for and are keen to contribute. The governors are well aware that it isn't just a school magazine, and the material must be relevant to the text; there is also an element of demystifying the governors for pupils also.
The report will also have an article by the vicar explaining controlled status, a governor's report on taking part in a school visit, a piece by a parent governor about her role, contributions by and pen pictures of staff and, interestingly, a draft school policy on personal, social and health education.
This came about because last year's report referred to gov-ernors approving school policies. What's all this about policies? asked parents. Can't we see some? So this one is being included, in draft, for discussion.
What difference has all this made to a body of governors who were not in any fundamental way involved in the school or its thinking two years ago, and have had a hard lesson in the possible consequences of such corporate detachment? Quite a long way to go still, as you would expect, to become a fully participating team.
Their committee system has not had a lot of life in it. By publicising the membership and roles of committees in this report, governors hope to put a bit of pressure on this form of work-sharing. There is beginning to be a feeling of a team, not 12 individuals. People talk to each other more between meetings, but above all, perhaps, the team basis of compiling the report has brought more governors into the school so that the formal work they do is seen against the background of its living purpose.
Wyche governors are lucky to have a new and lively head to share their growing up as a group. Jill Wytcherley is a good communicator and motivator, and relishes the interest now being taken in the children. She would be the first to say that she is learning too about the up and the down side of working closely with governors and, as yet, has not much experience of the full involvement of governors in the early stages of school policy formation and active planning.
Most new heads would say the same, and the lack of preparation for this particular aspect of headship is undoubtedly one reason why governors' progress is slow. But at Wyche I'm sure it will be steady and in the right direction. The will is there.
Entries are invited for the 1995 TES Annual Report Award. Send four copies of your report to The TES Annual Report Award, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Send a stamped addressed envelope to Celeste Halpin at the same address for a copy of the results of the 1994 award with suggestions for improving your report.