Mediation's what you need;Briefing;Governors

2nd April 1999 at 01:00

In our occasional series, Jane Martin discusses how to respond to the sensitive issue of bullying

It's one of the most sensitive areas for governors - complaints from parents. My own experience, as a primary parent-governor, concerned bullying - a frequent worry for mothers and fathers. Handling this complaint taught the governors a lot.

Incidents involving one Year 5 pupil had already brought a small group of parents into the headteacher's office. As in all such cases, the school tried to ensure that all children continued to have a satisfactory educational experience, while supporting the bully as much as the victims. In this case, it became clear that the bullying child had emotional and behavioural difficulties. Faced with their own children's anxiety, however, these parents were not sympathetic. They wanted some action - and fast.

As the chair of the governors' personnel committee (with discipline and pastoral care as part of its brief) I was brought into the situation formally by the headteacher at an early stage. She could read the signs. As is often the case, the approach from parents came through a letter to the headteacher outlining parental concern and copied to me.

As the problem escalated, parental anxiety became as much of an issue as the children's behaviour. While the school was moving as fast as it could to get a diagnosis and support for the disruptive child, and had gained the co-operation of his mother for extra supervision, the parents grew more agitated.

There are three useful rules in such situations:

* Governors' first loyalty is to the governing body and the school.

* Governors should never, in any circumstances, bypass the headteacher.

* Governors as individuals have no power at act: any action must be sanctioned by the full governing body and carried out on behalf of it.

Essentially, this matter concerned standards of discipline in the school. Legally, therefore, it was the responsibility of the head to take whatever measures were required to maintain acceptable standards of behaviour throughout the school. This would include having sole responsibility for excluding the pupil if necessary. In the early stages it was inappropriate therefore for governors to be involved at all.

The legal responsibility of the governing body, however, is to have a written statement or policy on the general principles on discipline. In our school, as in many others, we had also produced a code of conduct regarding bullying which made clear how parents could bring any concerns to the school's attention. As the production of these policies had been part of the personnel committee brief, I felt that I could best support the headteacher and keep open a sympathetic stance with parents by pointing out the proper role of governors and my own role as chair of that committee.

Procedurally, acting with the agreement of the headteacher and the chair of governors, I responded to the parents in writing. I pointed out the legal situation and emphasised that, since the head was acting within the policy framework set by the governing body, she had our full support. At the same time, I made sure that the headteacher was doing all that she could to improve matters.

Parents were not, however, content and the situation become more tense. At the heart of the matter was the opinion of some parents that the bully should be excluded. The headteacher and her staff disagreed.

Some mediation was required. We needed both to support the head while holding her to account for her course of action. With her agreement, I invited her, the parents, and the class teacher to an extraordinary meeting of the personnel committee to discuss the issues on both sides and to explain the procedures.

We had to preserve confidentiality about individual children but at the same time reassure parents that what was needed was a little time, a little patience, a little calm and a little understanding.

Parents, understandably, have strong views on standards of discipline, particularly when their child is anxious and upset by any form of bullying. But schools must be fair. In a situation like this, the question is, when does one child begin to seriously disrupt the education of others? And how does the school remedy this?

In our school, a small primary, there were real issues of how a small staff could adequately supervise and support one child, potentially at the expense of others. Once we had identified these issues on all sides and gained the help of professional experts and the collaboration of the families, we were able to address them, but we then needed a calm situation in which to demonstrate that the strategy could and did work.

I think our special meeting achieved that.

Jane Martin is a research fellow in the school of education, University of Birmingham. She is now a secondary school governor and writes here in a personal capacity

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