Leaders in battle for diversity

5th May 2000 at 01:00
The Government wants more people from ethnic minorities on governing bodies. Diana Hinds talks to black and Asian governors about their experiences.

MAUREEN McTaggart, a Jamaican mother of three, first thought of becoming a governor after watching the governing body at her children's primary school troop in, year after year, for the Christmas concert.

"There was not a single black face among them, and I thought, how can black children in the school identify with them?"

For the past three years, she has been a co-opted governor at Salisbury secondary school in Enfield, north London (not her children's school), which is currently on special measures after failing its Office for Standards in Education inspection.

"I thought if I became a governor I could find out how the school works and then help other parents," she said.

The Government has got a long way to go to persuade more people from ethnic minorities to come forward to be school governors. Of the 360,000 governors at 26,000 schools in England and Wales, less than 3 per cent are from minority groups - out of a national population of around 10 per cent.

Even in the areas more densely populated by ethnic minority groups, the figures are still low. A survey of Lea Valley in east London, by Hasanat Husain at the Tower Hamlets education directorate, found only 8 per cent of school governors were from minority groups, compared with a school population of 40 per cent.

Penny Rodrigues, an Asian parent governor at the new Betty Layward primary in Stoke Newington, north London, was in Africa until the age of eight, and remembers how her family knew almost nothing of how English schools worked when they first arrived here.

"I stressed in my application to be a governor that I had experienced what it was like to be newly arrived in a country and not understand the system. It can feel quite threatening to talk to a headteacher, and often it's easier to talk to a parent. As a governor, you can then feed back views to the head."

At Odessa infants in Newham, Bangladeshi parent governor Mohammed Abdullah has helped to establish a weekly parents' morning to encourage parents to come and chat to the head, and a number of Bangladeshi mothers, he says, now drop in regularly.

"Parents also come up to me with queries, when I bring my daughter to school. There's somebody they can talk to."

Mohammed Abdullah, who works for Tower Hamlets education authority, first became a co-opted governor in Westminster in 1988, and helped set up a project to take education directly to the many Bangladeshi children then moving around in temporary accommodation and missing school. He runs a voluntary organisation which give training and support, particularly in finance and personnel, to Bangladeshi governors in Tower Hamlets. He would like to set up something similar in Newham, he says, but make it accessible to all ethnic minority governors.

Chris Dankwa, a black African consultant in public services administration, approached his local council about becoming a school governor. He is now a local education authority governor at Rugby high school, which has about 60 per cent black and Asian pupils and three governors from ethnic minorities.

"I believe that governing bodies should reflect their communities. It's very important to communicate some of the needs of ethnic minorities through the governing body, otherwise these needs might not be met."

He was concerned about the school complaints system: "I thought the system in place didn't give all students a fair opportunity to put their case across."

He also questions whether the language support on offer is adequate: "There isn't, as far as I know, a system to monitor this, but if students don't improve their language, that is going to affect their job prospects."

Acting as a role-model for young people from your own community can also be a factor in becoming a governor. Chris Dankwa says he hopes to be able to sit in on classes every few months, "to observe, and to be part of it."

Exclusions is another key area for governors from ethnic minorities, who may often be called upon to sit on exclusion panels.

"I feel I can help here to give a black child and parents a say. I see parents come in and visibly relax when they see a black face on the panel," says Maureen McTaggart.

"I have been surprised by the stereotypical way some people in school view those from another race or culture; sometimes I have been able to get them to think a bit more, and not give up on the kids quite so easily. Children have been given a second chance because I was there to argue the case."

Sailesh Mehta, Indian-born, came to England as a child, and is a co-opted governor at his old school, Chiswick community college, west London. He, too, feels he can be useful to the school on exclusion panels:

"Although the school knows I'm Indian, they also know they'll get quite a clinical analysis from me on a panel, because I'll see both sides."

Drawing on his cultural background, Sailesh Mehta has been able to help the school, for instance, with his knowledge of Indian families' attitude to achievement in school.

"When we were children, if we'd been set 10 maths questions to do at home, my mother would set us 10 more!"

'I have been surprised by the stereotypical way some

people in school view those from another race'

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