Consultation can best be defined as the process which takes place after a decision has been made.
This is certainly the case in education, from the Department for Education and local authorities down through heads, senior management teams and governing bodies. Consultative documents are traditionally sent to schools two days before the end of the summer term, with a reply required in mid-August. Results can then be dismissed as being unrepresentative due to the low level of response.
I knew a recent consultation by our authority on changes to the school holidays was doomed as soon as I heard that county councillors had promised to look at the results "with great interest". It gave parents, teachers and governors three choices - always a good ploy if you want to avoid a clear majority. A low poll made the result "unrepresentative" (what proportion of the electorate voted for you, councillor?) and a disproportionate number of those who voted were teachers, so it was necessary to "weight" the results to give a more realistic picture of what the real people wanted(the option the council favoured).
At school level, I advise the extensive use of the briefing document given out just as the meeting gets under way. Your colleagues will not have time to absorb the contents, but you can dazzle them with presentation. Use bold headings and bullet points. Invest in a good printer. An LEA officer ass-ured me recently, apparently without irony, that governors were more likely to take notice of material printed on coloured paper. With a bit of luck no one will want to challenge, or even modify, a document over which you have obviously taken time and care.
Consultation with parents can be fun to watch. "Brainstorming" sessions with a skilful head wielding a magic marker have all the excitement of a television quiz show and only slightly less intellectual validity. But we all feel we have "ownership" of our "mission statement", which is so important, isn't it?
There are honourable exceptions. As chair of governors, I met my head before a recent governors' meeting to discuss a difficult and contentious matter. Not with any intention of pre-judging the issue, that would be most improper, but simply to establish that we were broadly in agreement. And the carefully typed notes I took into the meeting were for my personal use, and not for circulation; well, not unless the going got really rough. After lengthy consultation, we had an informal show of hands, in which nearly all the governors voted against my motion, including the head.
When I asked why later, the answer was simply "I was convinced by the arguments." Definitely one to remember.