Bring difficult parent on board

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Answers your leadership questions

One of our most difficult parents, who takes pleasure in talking the school down - not only at the gates but at the parents' meeting with inspectors - is now a parent-governor. Staff have no confidence in her; they know that she is duplicitous and indiscreet. She praises their efforts when discussing her two children (both of whom have genetic learning difficulties) but runs the school down at every opportunity. Is there any way we can refuse to have her on the governing body?

There are clear guidelines on eligibility to stand as a governor and specific reasons for exclusion. Being difficult is not one of them. It's much more effective to persuade a potential threat to join the team than to leave them on the outside throwing their poisoned arrows inwards.

Share all your concerns with the chair of governors and ask them to have an open and honest chat with this new governor. The tone should be warm and welcoming. But there should be no ambiguity about putting on the table concerns around confidentiality and the willingness to take on an ambassadorial role for the school. This does depend on the skills of the chair, of course.

Governing bodies are made up of disparate people. Some genuinely want to give something back to society; they have no personal agenda and no axe to grind. They are open-minded, generous of spirit and hard-working. If you have a governing body largely made up of these people, you are exceedingly lucky. Some people are there to enhance their CV. Their very busy lives prevent them from doing much, but they will have some creative, well-articulated ideas and may offer to take on a significant project.

Others, inevitably parents, may feel that they will be in a good position to understand the school, warts and all, and have the clout to drive the school in the direction they think it ought to take. Your staff governors will reflect the culture you have created in the school; at best, they will contribute with confidence and optimism, or at worst, they will be guarded and defensive. It is our job to meld all of these ingredients together to create and develop an effective team. We can't handpick governors, but we can invest time and effort in understanding their reasons and aspirations, in ensuring that they are thoroughly inducted into the role, and reassuring them that they have the potential to make a real contribution.

I suspect this governor of yours is driven by a huge concern for her two children. She may well be feeling quite powerless in terms of making everything better for them, and sounds as though her own emotions are swinging from gratitude for the work of the school to anxiety and uncertainty. People who spend a lot of time denigrating a school are often simply trying, in the way that they know how, to join or create a group of allies.

Try suspending your apprehension and animosity; get to know her and build a rapport. Give her an area of responsibility (for example, inclusion ) and work with governors to create a clearly defined framework to support involvement.

Create opportunities to bring all staff and governors together at least annually. Team-building exercises are very effective for governors, not only for getting to know staff, but for getting to know each other. Your new governor will need some emotional nurturing and will hopefully respond positively to a carefully defined challenge and the feeling of belonging to a strong team all pulling in the same direction.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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