Influence the power that hires

10th January 1997 at 00:00
You're next. You rise shakily from your chair in the interviewees' waiting room and trip nervously towards the head's study. But do you know who, or what, awaits you there?

When you filled in the form and wrote your letter of application you probably addressed your remarks to the head. But it is not heads - or at least not only them - who appoint teachers. Behind that door, in all likelihood, lurks that mysterious entity: the school governor. It is the governing body that now has the power to hire teachers and, if you are unlucky, fire them.

So what or who should you expect when you walk into the interview room? It is difficult to generalise about the 340,000 individuals who make up school governing bodies. You may be confronted by the mum of one your pupils-to-be or Sybil Fawlty: Basil's bossy partner, the actress Prunella Scales, is a governor. So is Melvyn Bragg; Cherie Booth (the barrister and wife of Tony Blair); Sir Malcolm Thornton (chairman of the Commons select committee on education); Jack Straw (Labour's home affairs spokesman) and Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5. A few prospective teachers have even been grilled by the deputy editor of The TES.

Like it or not, you had better get used to the idea that lay people will feature in decisions about your professional life.

In voluntary aided and grant-maintained schools the governing body will be your employer. Even in local authority schools, where the authority is technically your employer, the governors exercise almost all employers' powers. They alone can determine:

- how many staff shall be employed

- how they shall be selected

- how much they should be paid

- who should be promoted

- who shall be headteacher

- staff grievance or disciplinary rules

- whether staff should be sacked.

There are about 24, 000 governing bodies in England and Wales and probably as many different ways of doing things. So awaiting you behind that door to the interview room may be a full representative panel of governors - or none at all.

Governing bodies' power is to decide how appointments shall be made. Some believe that heads should be left to select teachers, with governor involvement only in the selection of senior staff. Others regard the appointment of staff as one of the key ways in which they can affect the spirit of the school.

They want a say in the kind of people to whom they entrust their pupils and the law gives it to them. Though heads are responsible for day-to-day management, the conduct of the school is under the direction of the governing body. Heads have legal duties but they are answerable for their actions to this group of men and women who are appointed or elected to ensure the school serves the community.

Governing bodies vary in size and make-up according to the size and type of school. The smallest local authority schools can have up to eight governors (nine if the head is one) so they often outnumber the teachers in rural schools.

The largest can have 18 governors (19 with the head). Generally, there are equal numbers of elected parent governors and local authority appointees and one or two elected teacher governors. Then between three and six governors are "co-opted" by the governors or appointed by the charitable bodies which founded some state-aided schools.

That may explain how they got there; but not who they are. You should assume that anyone who gives up the huge amount of spare time demanded of governors has some goodwill towards the school, young people and education.But who they are and how they interpret the best interests of the school and pupils they serve is pot luck.

You are likely to be confronted with a parent governor. First, because they are often available during the day; second, because schools are keen to appoint parent-friendly teachers; and third because parent governors are influential in governing bodies. They have the vested interest to put in the time to do the work; more so perhaps than political appointees who may also have party meetings to fit in.

You are unlikely to find a teacher governor on your panel. Some heads are uncomfortable about staff exercising such powers, though teacher governors are supposed to be full governors like any other. The governing body - not the head - is supposed to decide who should make appointments.

More practically, with only one or two teacher governors per school, involvement in too many appointments would be expensive if their classes have to be covered. Better to let someone else's employer bear the cost.

Governors are supposed to be lay people. So you cannot assume they are familiar with the jargon that is a second language to you. They may not be familiar with such acronyms as OFSTED (or not yet anyway), SCAA, or HMI. A governor once asked me why The TES was always writing about the London Education Authority, pointing to our frequent references to "the LEA".

Remember, too, that though you may be out to impress the head with your professional knowledge, the governors may be asking themselves what impression you will make on parents and pupils. Openness and enthusiasm for children and their learning, expressed in good plain English, may serve you rather better than a wordy exposition on the latest learning theory.

And beware of underestimating the governor who may seem more nervous than you. They may only be a new parent governor inexperienced in making decisions about the school. But their votes count just as much.

You should not assume, on the other hand, that governors are ill-informed about good practice. One survey suggested about four in ten governors appointed or elected after 1988 had some direct connection with education because they were now, or had once been, employed in schools or colleges.

Parent governors, for instance, may be teachers in another school. Many governors will have spent time with their head and other staff, seeing what goes on in the classroom, and working on school development plans. But some may have barely set foot inside a classroom for 20 years and are in for a shock when they do.

There are stories of governors asking crashingly inappropriate questions at interviews. No doubt some of them are true, though how representative they are is questionable. Governing bodies often try to co-opt members who are professionals, including those with experience of job interviewing. Governors are supposed to ensure their membership includes representatives of local businesses. But the numbers of personnel managers or employers willing to become governors in schools with which they have no connection are limited.

Co-option also allows governing bodies to balance their membership in other ways: to ensure a representation of men and women and of the social,ethnic and racial compositio n of the community served by the school. Research suggests they have not been as successful as they might have been.Men are more likely to be elected chairmen of governors and may be more in evidence at interviews than women; ethnic minorities are thought to be under-represented on governing bodies and this may be reflected in panels, though not necessarily in the attitudes of governors to eth- nic minority candidates.

Training for teacher appointment is available to governors - but not compulsory. Thoughtful governors regard selecting the right staff as their most demanding responsibility, however.

You should not have to fear any governors on your appointment panel. But do not underestimate their influence. Address them as the intelligent but lay representatives of those who will not only pay your salary but also contribute to the climate of values in which, with any luck, you will soon be working.

Bob Doe is deputy editor of The TES

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