No more than a friendly touch, please

8th November 1996 at 00:00
The power in the relationship between governors and teachers is all one-way, says Glennis Foote. And it's not in the teachers' direction. If I had my way, I would declare a moratorium on the phrase "critical friend" as a description for the ideal governor. It is not that it has simply become a cliche but by describing a governor as a "friend" (critical or otherwise) we are making the same mistake as the young student teacher who thinks she can be friends with the children in her care. The relationships are just not like that.

The Government has given governors so much power over headteachers and teachers alike that it is hardly surprising if they are viewed with a kind of wary suspicion. Where else would a group of well-intentioned amateurs be allowed to determine pay, make someone redundant or over-ride professional decisions? It cannot be called a relationship between friends when one party carries the authority, whereas the other has all the expertise.

If the powers that governors have are disturbing to staff, governors themselves often find their responsibilities overwhelming. Without any kind of professional training they are required, for example, to be accountable for the health, safety and well-being of anything up to a couple of thousand people. No wonder governors sometimes lie awake at night, beset by nightmarish visions.

And, yes, we do spend far too much of our time worrying about smelly toilets rather than the infinitely more important issues of teaching and learning. But the reason is simple. We feel ill-equipped to deal with that particular responsibility. Many local education authorities, my own included, offer an excellent governor-training programme, but these useful seminars on child protection, drug abuse and the like are no substitute for real knowledge about what makes a good teacher or how to recognise when things are going wrong. If the Government really wants us to have such skills then the necessary training must not only be free to the school, it must be compulsory.

Most governors see themselves as their school's supporters. Apart from the odd renegade with a political axe to grind or a desire to keep an eye on their own child's progress, we are there because we approve of the school and want to help. It is the form this help can take which leaves us baffled and so we resort to matters of "household management" to make ourselves feel better. We also feel, I suspect with some justification, that moves on our part to become more involved in the day-to-day happenings of the classroom would not be welcomed by teachers or their heads.

What are we for? In my more cynical moments the answer comes unbidden to my lips - to be the fall-guy. However, the official line is that we act as trustees, ensuring on behalf of the community that the school delivers a good education to its children. Which is fine, except that on occasions governors feel that they are defending the school they believe in against the malicious gossip and ill-founded rumour of that very community. All this leaves governors wondering exactly whose side they are meant to be on.

When I am completely overwhelmed by conflicting loyalties I am on the side of the children and whatever is in their best interests. At present it is all too easy for the tremendous amounts of energy, enthusiasm and goodwill on many governing bodies to remain untapped or - perhaps worse - channel themselves into trivial, nit-picking activity. What we need from the Government is a clear definition of our role and the training to be able to fulfil it.

Glennis Foote is a governor in Cambridge

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