Laurence Pollock looks at a mentoring and mediation scheme for governors in north London.
LIFE can be busy for school governors, sometimes persuaded to join up by a sly promise of "just three meetings a year".
As full meetings, committees, classroom visits and concerts mount, can a governor still reach out to a closer involvement with individual pupils and parents?
Enfield education authority, in north London, thinks they can and should. It has been building up a mentoring and mediation service to tackle both low achievement and exclusions and has been encouraging governors to train and get involved.
Satnam Lotay, head of the authority's professional development centre, believes taking part will enhance their skills. "It will provide a much greater understanding of the issues that school staff and families face and of the catchment area generally."
He believes, eventually, there will be a strong uptake among governors. "They often become governors because they want to help children - that is why, for instance, there is such a big interest in curriculum matters.
"And with more parents - who are usually more committed - on governing bodies, we believe there will be an increase in those willing to take part and make a real contribution."
Mentoring at Enfield has been running for nearly 18 months and during that time the number of pupils using it has trebled. The scheme aims to develop self-worth and the ability to cope, increase links with families and offer suitable role models, and build models of good practice.
"A mentor is someone to talk to who won't get upset with you," said one pupil. Teachers talk of youngsters showing more concern for others' feelings and trusting adults.
Cyril Dainow, a recent recruit to the Enfield mentor training programme and chair of governors at Wilbury primary school, is also impressed. As chair, he carries the heaviest burden, but he wants to see the idea develop and can spare an hour a week. Wilbury was the site of a pilot scheme last year.
He is a firm believer in undivided personal attention and stresses that helping out in class is not as advantageous as one-to-one. But he is also aware of the pitfalls and the nuances in establishing a one-to-one link with a pupil. Enfield will not allow governors to mediate in their own schools, but mentoring is permitted.
Could this pose problems if a child is complaining about a member of staff, for instance? Is a confidence - such as an admission of criminal activity or drug taking - absolute?
Cyril Dainow gives a clear "no". "You play this by ear but at some stage you have to set down ground rules. Trust is very important but the kids have to know where the line is." Each school will have a mentoring co-ordinator and mentors such as Dainow will report back.
The problems of operating within your own school, of course, do not arise in the mediation process. And there are other contrasts. While mentoring is geared towards improved performance and self-esteem, mediation focuses specifically on tackling the number of exclusions by working in partnership with headteachers. Enfield claims that only one mediated case in over a year has resulted in exclusion.
Mediation is a more complex, time-consuming process. Using a shuttle model, mediators work in pairs, moving between school and family and pupil. Training covers preparation for mediation, role playing and an examination of the issues around confidentiality and personal safety.
But, as with mentoring, there are sensitivities which governors must be aware of, especially as they are not professional educators. Susan La Pompe, an Enfield governor who has been mediating since 1997, pinpoints occasional wariness from staff when mediators are involved with a school. "They think we are monitoring them. When we met some of the teachers, they did seem nervous," she said.
Susan La Pompe urges governors to make schools aware of the mediation process and to consider using it. She is also convinced that her involvement has helped her to act as a governor: "If someone is being excluded, I know how he is feeling - that everyone is against him."
The cultural contrast between different schools is another issue which governor mediators might have to address. Their own school could tolerate behaviour which is not acceptable elsewhere.
"It's hard," says Susan La Pompe. "You have to restrain yourself and accept that there are differences."
Enfield is still pressing for more volunteer mentors and mediators, whether governors or not, and wants to expand the scheme. Those who demonstrate a lead will bring a greater depth of educational expertise than others who simply have good intentions. Equally important, perhaps, their contributions to governors' deliberations might then have a streetwise edge which can sometimes be lacking.
Those few extra hours could be very worthwhile, producing a "greater understanding of the issues", as the authority might say, or being just "wicked" if you are one of the kids.