Parent governors are stuck on trivialities

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
I am the headteacher of a 540-pupil primary school in a mainly prosperous suburban area. I have a very good governing body on the whole, and I hope I am responsive to all their concerns. I certainly operate as openly as I can and welcome challenging comments. My main criticism is of my parent governors and I'd like your opinion on whether it is reasonable.

Most of these parent governors tend to raise everyday issues which, to my mind, are not right for a governors' meeting, such as crazes which from time to time descend on schools like epidemics and are discussed in the park or the supermarket by fellow parents. Others might be a changed rota for dinner, playground matters like small groups monopolising footballs, a class having to have a new teacher halfway through the year, condition of toilets, new rules about items allowed to be brought in.

As you know, such problems arise frequently in a school and are mostly short-lived, but I discuss them and sound out opinion as to action when appropriate. My main complaint is that we also have a very active parents council with every class represented. It meets twice a term and members can bring up what they like. I would like to keep governors' meetings for performance reports, discussions on curriculum, standards, overall behaviour and, above all, planning for the future. Is this reasonable and if so, how can I discourage this low-level stuff? I often get no response when I raise what I consider strategic problems where I would welcome a debate.

If you didn't have other opportunities for low-level problems to be raised I would have sympathy with your parent governors. However, they do seem to have excellent outlets and I agree that the kind of issues you quote are not appropriate to the governing body, though it may be wise to refer briefly to them early in a governors' meeting just to show you are on the case.

I have to say that yours is quite a common problem. In part it is a misunderstanding of parent governors' role, especially the confusion between the role of delegate and that of representative: the latter implying participation in policy above the day-to-day problems such as you describe. In part it is a sort of instant response mentality which is not organised to store things up for the proper forum. It may also be nervousness about debating big issues of policy and you should try to demystify these at every opportunity.

I don't however think you should tackle the misuse of governors' meetings head on. It is an important issue, but you won't cure it like that. I think it will respond to a range of minor strategies. One is to forestall the inevitable by including a few topical low-level issues in your own report.

You can include an indication of what you are doing or thinking of doing.

If a parents' council meeting is recent or imminent, refer to that as the obvious place for these items. You could institute a parents' council postbox for day-to-day issues and emphasise that you welcome problems being reported that way as they arise, as well as at parents' council meetings, and will take them seriously.

Finally, you can show your respect for parent governors' opinions by trailing more strategic items from the agenda as early as possible in the governing body meeting, teasing out the issues they raise and emphasising how you would appreciate the views of parents and teacher representatives when you get to them. Make sure that any papers you circulate on these genuinely governor items set out the issues clearly in everyday language and an inclusive style, and make it clear that you want governors to help you deal with them.

Joan Sallis's column now appears on this page every three weeks: see more of her answers on the TES website. The TES welcomes your queries. Joan strives to answer all letters, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum. We aim to provide helpful information for ALL readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals. Send questions to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see the_expert where Joan's answers will appear

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