Into the lion's den

25th May 2001 at 01:00
It takes skill and diplomacy to succeed as a new member of the board in a failing school, says David Marriott

When a school fails an inspection, is put in special measures or is deemed to have serious weaknesses, extra governors may be needed.

They are appointed by the local education authority andor the diocese, if it's a church school. They are full members of the governing body but you'll search in vain for any substantial guidance.

The idea is that the governing body needs strengthening in some way. It might simply need more hands to the pumps or specialist input in finance or personnel.

Often a failing school has a failing governing body. More often than not, they're short of recruits and have not done any training for several years.

Additional governors serve for four years, in theory, as with nearly all other categories of governor. In reality, such schools have about 18 months to two years to turn themselves around, so the additional governors are unlikely to serve more than half the term.

Inevitably, it can be a pretty intense experience for the additional governor. There have to be more frequent meetings than usual, particularly at the start. They may be involved in staffing or appeals panels, and, in some cases, industrial tribunals. Painful, urgent action may be required before recovery can begin. As outsiders, they have the advantage of perspective but risk becoming a target for the unresolved anger seething beneath the surface.

It's important for there always to be more than one additional governor per school, to prevent the individual being smothered by the rest of the members and to ensure mutual support and the chance to exchange views.

Additional governors need resilience and excellent interpersonal and negotiating skills. A first, governing bodies in "failing" schools are often in no mood to accept outside help. They may be viewed with suspicion. There have been heated exchanges in some situations. Letting off steam can be an important release and the additional governor might have to serve as the flue.

Additional governors can draw on their experience of their current governing body, offering alternative models for getting things done. But, in so doing, they run the risk of over-selling their home team and producing resentment. It's a very tricky job.

As the group works its way through various emotional stages, often from denial to acceptance of the need to improve, the additional governors' role also changes. At first, they might need to put in a lot of direct help, drawing on their own experience and personal talents but there's always the danger of developing a culture of dependency. The original governors must become more effective and self-sufficient. The additional ones have to do a lot of the work themselves, develop their own subtle exit strategy and make a fine judgment as to when they may safely resign.

Withdrawing may prove difficult. They've invested time, effort and emotion in the enterprise and they usually leave before everything's perfect. A clean bill of health for the school as it emerges from special measures or serious weaknesses can give a sense of a job well done. Experience shows that special measures this year can lead to beacon status in the not-too-distant future. Success stories like that canhelp to persuade others to become additional governors - but they remain a rare and valuable breed.

David Marriott is head of governor support at Wiltshire County Council, and the author of The Effective School Governor, Network Educational Press Ltd 1998

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