Study tries to pick paths through problems which can plague parent governors, and finds the solution is clarity. Karen Thornton reports.
SCHOOLS are institutions built on relationships between the
people working and studying in them. If relationships break down, the fall-out can have a direct impact on the quality of education provided.
And, according to the authors of Parent Governors: A Blessing or a Curse, relationships between school staff and parent governors have the potential to be particularly fraught - and therefore particularly damaging.
Many problems faced by parent governors and the people they work with in schools spring from lack of clarity on how parent governors should act. As elected governors, are they there as advocates of parents, or only to represent their views and act in the best interests of the school overall? A failure to manage or agree this issue can lead to breakdown of relationships between staff and parent governors, suggest John Adams and Jane Phillips.
"In some schools, the elected parent governor is viewed by staff, parents and governors as a valuable asset to the governing body and the school. In others, their input is seen as counter-
productive," they say.
The pair looked at two schools - one where all parties acknowledge the relationship with the parent governor is constructive and professional, and the other where it has broken down completely. The first school is characterised by agreement, particularly between the head and the parent governor, about the latter's role. This is seen as representative, with the governor talking of being "in touch" with parents. Rather than taking the parents' side, she was prepared to make decisions "in the best interests of the school", even if not in the best interests of her child.
Her headteacher had a similar understanding of the role of
parent governors, and generally welcomed governors into the school and was keen for them to take an active role.
The second parent governor never goes to her school except for formal meetings, feels unwelcome and is "shunned" by some of the staff.
"Her motives appear to be vindictive, fuelled by a real or perceived slight to her daughter. She has neither a clear idea of the balance that the role of parent governor requires nor indeed any wish to play such a role.
She appears to have become involved in a dispute between other parents and clearly sees her position as one of sowing discord," say Adams and Phillips
However, the headteacher and the governing body as a whole - bear some responsibility for the deterioration in the relationship. The governors, dependent on their chair to do most of the work, were left reeling by the chair's sudden death.
The headteacher feels new governors, with their increasing responsibilities, are more pushy, more interested in power and throwing their weight around. Her reaction is to complain that there is no easy way of removing difficult governors, and to look for another job.
Jane Phillips and John Adams note: "Election brings with it a mandate to represent the views of the constituency, but does it necessitate putting forward those views? After 14 years, there is still misunderstanding about the proper role of elected governors.
"Many parent governors think that they are mandated as delegates of the parent body, whereas it is generally accepted that their role is a representative one. Many believe that they are 'the' link between the governing body and parents, whereas the more common view is that they are there to help to strengthen such links. The law is clear on the parent governor's role as a governor, not as representative."
The authors concede that the two-school comparison is too small to allow their findings to be generalised.
But they suggest the findings do provide ways to manage and improve such key relationships:
parents get unbiased information during elections for parent governors;
good induction training for new parent governors, perhaps including mentoring;
a focus in school on building effective working relationships and on effective communication;
early conflict resolution;
clarification of the roles of governors and staff;
ensuring all governors are active. Governing body self-review would help;
continuing development of heads' skills in promoting key relationships.
reviewing the appropriateness of the management responsibilities currently borne by governors.
"The growing pressure on schools to perform at higher and higher levels and governors' increasing management responsibilities within schools bring with them the potential for an increase in problematic relationships.
"These insights can offer the basis for repairing damaged relationships and further improving good relationships within schools," the authors of the report conclude.
NAGM research report number 15, John Adams and Jane Phillips, avail-able from NAGM, tel: 0121 643 5787.