Joan Sallis answers your questions

6th May 2005 at 01:00
As a headteacher I appreciate that governors are not experts and sometimes have little experience of formal bodies. Perhaps I am a prisoner of my training and experience but I find it unacceptable that a meeting about important matters should be an opportunity for members to range freely over things that bother them without any warning of what they intend to say. It isn't that comments do not arise from agenda items (because then I could rule them out of order) but that within an agenda item there is bound to be scope sometimes for difficult aspects to be raised without warning. Parent governors may use an agenda item to bring up all sorts of issues coming from the parent community of which I have had no notice. Staff governors are probably less innocent and use the presence of outsiders to challenge me without notice and put me on the spot concerning controversial matters between the staff and myself. Do you think there ought to be some protection in the regulations for heads in this situation?

If you are saying that governors' meetings should be conducted in an orderly way, sticking in a broad sense to the agenda, not bringing up any major new, even if related, issues in and around the subject without prior warning, I would agree with you. I would also counsel parents and staff governors - and indeed often do - that though it isn't written down anywhere, it is both courteous and efficient to inform the head of any new aspects of an agenda item or any very controversial issues they intend to raise at a meeting. That does not mean you have a veto, but simply that it is inconsiderate to put anyone on the spot in a public setting, and isn't likely to get a thought-through and rational response. You do not have a veto and I hope your letter does not arise from a desire to suppress debate. Indeed if you are a bit high-handed with staff and unwilling to discuss difficult matters concerning them within the school, their representatives may well be deliberately trying to trap you into an answer in the meeting. That isn't nice but it is pretty natural.

You do not mention the chair, which is surprising. It is his or her job rather than yours to ensure that members keep to the agenda, ask colleagues' permission to add an item if it has come up suddenly and cannot wait, and rule out of order any interventions which really do threaten the proper conduct of business. Perhaps you should have a discussion with him or her about your concerns. A good chair would not be so hide-bound by the letter of the regulations as to silence any member who brought up new and important matters of real relevance to an agenda item. On the other hand an experienced chair would be pretty smartly on the case if he or she thought someone was taking advantage of the presence of assorted others to cause you discomfort. A really super chair might try to discover why you felt so threatened by unexpected comments by staff, say, and help you to overcome any touch of that paranoia which most of us exhibit in difficult corners.

If you think staff really are deliberately wrong-footing you, talk to their representatives about governors' meetings. Make it clear that you do not want to stop them doing their proper job of representing, but that they will get more out of their role if they tell you in advance of difficult issues they intend to raise, simply to ensure they get a considered answer.

Promise them you will not try to muzzle them.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see where answers will appear

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