Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let's be clear about one important thing from the start: governors are required to act as a body. There is no question of individuals crashing uninvited into lessons whenever they choose. The governing body as a whole has to agree on who visiting governors are and what they might do.
A great deal depends on what you, and they, understand by "formal" observations. Clipboards and marks out of 10? Some kind of structured observation schedule? A process similar to a professional lesson appraisal, with feedback? Or what? The blood chills at certain of these possibilities in the hands of people who, however conscientious and committed, however strong their right to know, are likely to be amateurs at lesson analysis and evaluation.
With such potentially delicate matters it is important that whatever transpires is negotiated, rather than imposed on a resentful staff. If lots of lessons are already being observed, if exams are on the horizon, or the school has suffered interruptions, then it might not be a good idea to send in more spectators in the wake of inspectors, advisers, appraisers, performance managers, or anyone else.
If the time and purpose is right, it could be an interesting experience all round. Most governors don't want to be put in the position of formally assessing teachers, but they do feel much better informed if they have seen and talked about a real literacy and numeracy hour, for example, rather than only read about them. The purpose of the exercise must be crystal clear: it should be for the better information of governors, rather than some "official" assessment of teaching, since this is highly problematic.
As head you are entitled to point out possible pitfalls, like a governor going in with a particular axe to grind, the disastrous effect of an unfortunate plonking manner, or pretending to be interested in teaching but secretly wanting to check out their own child's teacher.
Let them join in with a lesson
As an ex-parent governor and now trainee teacher, I feel it is important governors be allowed to see teachers and pupils at work. However, they do not need to conduct formal observations. I suggest the head proposes governors join in with a lesson. Equipped with an outline in advance, they could observe the start and perhaps be given a group of pupils to work with. In this way, the governor will understand more about the classroom and the teacher will get an extra pair of hands and, hopefully, some useful feedback.
Denise Firth, Chesham, Bucks
Discourage formal observations
Do all you can to discourage your governors from carrying out formal observations. As a co-opted governor who is a teacher (and inspector) I would never want to impose on staff in their classrooms. Invite them to monitor toilets (soap, paper and towels) and playground facilities; some insight, understanding and investment here can really make a difference to a child's view of school.
Matthew Pike, Nottingham
It is not part of their responsibility
Carefully and politely point out that governors should have access to information about monitoring systems in school. They might also have access to data arising from the systems - for example, how many observations have taken place. However, this should not identify any individual, but be of an aggregated nature - what percentage of lessons gave cause for concern, if any? Once that is done, remind them that it is not part of their responsibility to monitor teaching directly. However, after seeking the teachers' permission, would they like to sit in on a lesson to get a "feel for the curriculum" or even come in regularly to help, for example by taking groupsindividuals for reading?
Stephen McGlone, Market Harborough, Leicestershire
Most visits have been positive
Our numeracy and literacy governors do observe lessons at my primary school in West Yorkshire. But they have a strict brief: they confirm that literacy and numeracy are being taught, and are not meant to comment on what they thought of the lesson. We don't really like being observed, but no one minds too much, and most of the visits have been positive, with governors getting involved with lessons.
Jessica Wortley, email
Set aside a day for their visit
Say no politely but firmly, pointing out that you already have an excellent monitoring scheme in place and can show them the evidence for it. (Make sure it exists.) If they insist, tell them about Ofsted, the unions, teacher stress and shortages and give them more literature on the role of a governor. If they still don't back off, mention the ongoing recruitment drive for inspectors should they fancy a career change. Appoint a day a term when they are invited to tour the school, where you should ensure that all your teachers smile at them pleasantly.
Gill Tweed, south London