Left behind in the wake

10th March 1995 at 00:00
A once-a-term meeting fails to serve primary pupils and their parents, says a disillusioned governor. I recently resigned in despair from the governing body of a primary school.

I wanted to be an active governor, contributing whatever I could and supporting the school. I went to school events, council seminars relevant to the school and several training courses. I was usually the only member of the governing body to do so.

Chatting to heads, governors and chairpersons from other schools, I quickly realised that my school was lagging behind. Governors elsewhere were fully involved in the life of their school and had a working relationship with the teachers. Teachers gave presentations to governors' meetings; governors visited regularly, were given special responsibility for certain areas of the curriculum and "shadowed" the teacher responsible.

My own experience was very different. In the year or so I was a member of the governing body, I was not introduced to any other governor and never found out who they all were. Teachers and governors had virtually no contact apart from the presence of the generally-silent teacher governors at termly meetings.

When I asked if an informal meeting or social event could be arranged so teachers and governors could get to know each other better, the head felt unable to ask teachers to stay behind for such a non-essential matter. The special expertise that individual governors undoubtedly had, and their contacts with other organisations and companies were not used. When I offered to help in one particular area of school where I have experience, the chairman warned me off.

I was told not to talk to parents. The type of governors' surgery to which parents could bring their questions, suggestions, compliments and complaints, was unacceptable. Direct contact between governors and parents was seen as interference, usurping the authority of the head and teachers and, in the view of the chairman, simply provided a focus for parents who liked to complain.

There was no parent-teacher association and, consequently, no way for parents as a group to communicate with the school. At the annual parents' meeting, the chairman declined to introduce the governors. With one brief exception, we sat in silence for two hours while the head and chairman fielded all the questions.

The head and chairman had a working relationship so close as to be exclusive; the chairman appeared to view the rest of the governors as largely superfluous. The level of debate at meetings was poor because governors were generally badly informed, and there was no sense of the governing body or the governors and teachers being a team and working together. On several occasions I tried to raise a variety of matters with the chairman, both in person and in writing, but he declined to respond to any of them on the grounds that he didn't see any point in discussing them.

At that point I resigned, disillusioned by the way this school's governing body is chaired. There is no guidance or direction from the top; no encouragement to governors to get involved. I sincerely hope the situation in this school is uniquely bad. I would hate to think that others are governed in this appalling manner.

However, I fear that if what I experienced was indeed a solitary example of bad practice, then there would be no need for Joan Sallis's excellent column.

The governing body elects the chairman, so in theory it can choose not to elect an incompetent or unpopular chairman. In practice, if the chairman in question however unsatisfactory he or she might be is a prominent and respected member of the local great and good, few are prepared to have their names put forward in open opposition.

And chairmanship can be an onerous responsibility with a significant workload. Many governors seem happy to let the present holder of the post carry on in the job because it eliminates the problem of finding someone else willing and competent.

Isn't it time that Mrs Shephard brought governing bodies - and especially their chairpersons - within a more structured environment? Making their nomination and election by secret ballot mandatory would be a start.

In my view, governors, and especially chairs, must be compelled to undertake training and the governing body as a whole must undergo periodic assessment. A vital element of any such assessment must be the views of parents.

It's just not good enough for governors to drop into the school once a term for tea and biscuits and an audience with the chairman, only to disappear again not to be seen or heard of until the next meeting in the following term. The parents and children of the school deserve better.

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