Getting to know all about your peers
GOVERNING bodies occasionally get a glimpse of the network of contacts their school has and are often surprised to find how extensive it is.
A passing reference by the head to his regular meetings with other local heads or by the deputy head about a weekly secondment suggests that schools are less insular than most governing bodies and benefit from sharing experiences, good practice or problems. When they enquire further, governors will discover that their special needs co-ordinator, librarian, key stage and subject co-ordinators all meet their peers informally on a regular basis - because they value the contact and opportunities to learn from each other.
Governors know about links via their local education authority but are often only partly aware of the full extent of the authority's involvement with schools in terms of advice, training and support for professional staff at various levels. Governors have their own network through the LEA with termly briefings, clerking support and training, but seem rarely to develop active long-term links with other governing bodies. Yet they cite one of the greatest benefits of governor training as the chance to meet other governors and share experiences.
They increasingly prefer dedicated in-house training to the general courses offered, and for good reason in terms of team-building, shared knowledge and improved efficiency. Yet this only increases the insularity which leads to odd practices and attitudes in some governing bodies.
Can governors usefully get together in a climate dominated by competition between schools? New chairs often ask if it might be possible to attend another school's meeting to see "how they do it" but the impediment of confidentiality always seems to prevail.
Many LEAs encourage in-house training with a group of schools which is effective. But, perhaps because the organisation is such a hassle, it does not seem to lead to anything. Contact on a purely social level does not work because few governors have the time to spare.
Governors are so used to being "done to" - trained, burdened with official terms for what they do (usually invented by the Government - "critical friend" is the classic one), and surrounded by legal duties - that they have become inhibited and nervous. Much of what governors are led to believe is obligatory is in fact guidance, many high-profile initiatives which appear to be yet another hurdle to surmount sink without trace. In the face of a deluge of advice, exhortation and pressure, perhaps it is time to talk to each other more, compare notes and gain confidence.
Perhaps governors should take a lead from their heads. A first step might be for three or four chairs of similar schools in an area to make contact and explore possibilities. If it is too big a step to take to attend each other's meetings, they might find that a series of joint meetings to compare notes on practical issues is a way to bring their governing bodies together. For example, how do they relate to parents? Some governing bodies agonise about poor attendance at the annual meeting, others laugh it off and find better ways to communicate with them. Some governing bodies use questionnaires to parents, others arrange a picnic. Or - how are committees operated? Or visits! - some governing bodies have great difficulty with these, others have them down to a fine art. Less-structured discussion in an informal setting is different from formal training and should not replace it. As a form of "self-help", it may be more revealing, provide an opportunity to tackle insecurities, or celebrate and share good work and bright ideas. Above all, it will stimulate debate and new thinking from within. But a word of warning - someone will have to put some real effort into organising and giving such an event a clear focus if it is not simply to become yet another talking shop.