Making a difference
Sue Walker is chair of governors of Chapel Road Special School, Attleborough, Norfolk. A parent governor at the school for nine years and chair for the past three, she is an adult basic education worker. "I decided to become a special school governor when my son, a Down's Syndrome child, attended the school. I wanted to be able to help other parents in a similar situation," she says.
She believes governors have an important role in planning and policy making, "especially in a school with children with severe learning difficulties where pupils' more diverse and developmental needs run alongside the demands of the national curriculum".
At her school governors are allocated a specific class. "They have responsibility for visiting and asking teachers what is happening. We pick up so much by doing this and it helps staff understand the governors' role. As the governing body has developed we have become more curriculum focused as a result of reporting about these visits, bringing back messages from governor training sessions and through the headteacher's report.
"We are in the throes of developing policies to be more systematic in monitoring the curriculum and will be inviting curriculum co-ordinators to attend governor meetings to discuss their plans."
Her governing body has discussed the school's aims and values. "Development planning involves discussing a document with all teachers and teaching assistants. Staff justify all aims and objectives which are grouped into development targets. Priorities are decided within the limits of the budget. Our aim is to achieve an entitlement for all pupils under the national curriculum".
The Reverend Brian Robertson was co-opted to the governing body of Imperial Avenue Infants School, with Cherryleas Assessment Centre, Leicester, after being an Anglican missionary in India.
Since his church promotes education and community involvement, he only needed gentle persuasion when co-option to Imperial Avenue school was mooted. "Joining a supportive team helped," he says. "Even though this was my first governorship I didn't feel inexperience mattered. Since other governors were also relatively new this gave me confidence to take the chair last October.
"I decided to orient new governors, to get involved with training, to undertake planned visits, to invite our school adviser to lead a monitoring and evaluation session. It was a rapid period of on-the-job training".
Following an Office for Standards in Education inspection two years ago, Brian knew there was a planning and policy role for governors. "We want to be a governing body not just responding to panic issues or hobby horses of teachers, governors or parents. Our headteacher and her senior management team lead on priority setting, but the governors are involved at all stages.
"We don't have a complicated committee structure: we have working groups looking at prioritised areas. We currently have one small group looking at the impact of nursery vouchers and another looking at security issues liaising with other schools" He sees governors as critical friends, "with the emphasis very much on 'friend'. There must be a balance but we believe in being as strongly supportive as we can be."
Councillor Peter Williams has been a governor for 10 years, serving in five different schools. Currently he is chair of Alkrington County Primary and vice-chair of the Queen Elizabeth secondary schools, Rochdale. He attended both schools as a pupil, as do his two children.
"I am the product of the comprehensive system and a passionate believer in it: it has had success in raising overall educational achievement," he says.
Councillor Williams is also chair of the planning committee and vice-chair of finance with Rochdale borough council, as well as founder member of the Rochdale branch of the Campaign for State Education (CASE). In his spare time he is a tax accountant. "My employers are fairly generous towards time off for my council and voluntary activity".
He sees governors having an important role in engendering debate and challenging "convenient compromises", but top of his list comes school planning. He is proud that both his schools foster an ethos of high standards for all, whatever their ability. "Most teachers in my experience believe in pupils reaching their full potential. A question for governors is 'are the circumstances and policies right for achieving that objective?'" As a finance expert he has adjusted well to local management and school budgets. "But ultimately I believe too much concentration is made on making the figures balance rather than on the educational implications of the decisions."