It's the young ones

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Governors are not just grey men in suits - they are teenagers, students and youth workers too. Martin Whittaker reports on a new-look pilot scheme

It's only eight years since Nadine Hughes left primary school. Now she is helping to make decisions about how one is run. At the tender age of 19, Nadine has just been appointed a governor of Kingswood primary school in the London borough of Lambeth.

"I haven't got a feel for it yet," she says. "I'm still waiting for training and I'm getting bombarded with school profiles and paperwork at the moment.

"I don't remember seeing any governors when I was at school. I had this image of a scary-looking man in a suit, and I probably would have been really scared to approach one.

"Then I thought if I was a school governor, it would help change that whole stereotype."

She is one of three new recruits in a Lambeth pilot scheme designed to bring a younger voice to the table at school governors' meetings.

Nadine, who is studying for A-levels at further education college; Charlene Brown, a 20-year-old youth worker; and Dionne Elliott, a 24-year-old performing arts student, have all been appointed as governors for three primary schools.

Since last September, governors have been allowed to appoint pupils as associate members. Under-18s can attend meetings and sit on committees, but they have no voting rights. But the three young Lambeth recruits aren't intended to be a token youth presence. They are full governors appointed by the local education authority with responsibility for setting and overseeing budgets, deciding on school policies, advising on senior staff appointments and, when necessary, challenging the headteacher.

Lambeth council hopes the scheme will bring to the governing bodies more awareness of the realities of being a pupil. And it wants the three youngsters to become ambassadors for the role of governor, and improve its fuddy-duddy image.

The idea came from councillor Anthony Bottrall, executive lead member for education on the Liberal Democrat-controlled council.

He says the authority needed to fill some positions on governing bodies, but decided to recruit from Lambeth Youth Council rather than making political appointments. All three new governors are black, which he says helps to address a shortage of governors from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

"I was impressed with the way these young people had responded to practical challenges," he says. "They are vocal, and not shy at coming forward.

"Some of them have engaged secondary schools on issues of how they teach sex education and sexual health. They took the issue that they had been poorly taught and that a lot of teachers didn't know how to deal with it.

"They have been taken on to take classes in one of our secondary schools.

So I thought, 'they're enterprising young people. Let's see if they're interested in being school governors'."

The trio are receiving extra support and training from the authority for their new role.

Charlene Brown is on the governors of Woodmansterne primary school in Streatham. And she has certainly lowered the board's average age - the governor she replaced is in her 70s. She has been a member of Lambeth Youth Council for three years and believes this has been a good grounding for her new role.

"I think this is going to empower more young people to want to get involved at a senior level. Not many young people would think of becoming a school governor. Once they start this scheme and if they promote it well, they are going to get a lot more."

Dionne Elliott has been appointed a governor at Wyvil primary school. She says: "I think it's beneficial that I'm young, female and representing ethnic minorities. They are quite under-represented as it stands."

Governors themselves have been wary of pupils becoming full governors. What do they think about Lambeth's scheme?

Stephen Adamson, vice-chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, worries that after tackling issues such as police stop-and-search policies or sexual health in schools, members of Lambeth Youth Council may find the day-to-day stuff of meetings boring.

But he is in favour of the scheme. "They should bring a breath of fresh air to their governing bodies. We all get stuck in our ways and we need challenging. Our job is to challenge the school, but we sometimes need challenging ourselves."

Alan Davidson, chair of governors at Woodmansterne, says: "I think we gain an insight into someone who has had recent experience of the education system, and also someone with an appreciation of attitudes of young people within the borough.

"We want governors to be seen as a natural part of the school. And if we can get away from the image of old men in suits, that's great."

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