28th February 1997 at 00:00
I was a governor for three years in a primary school where the head shared everything with us and we had no argument about who did what. Now I have moved on with my family to the secondary side, and suddenly there seems to be non-stop argument about boundary lines, with always the feeling we are interfering in the work of teachers. So why is there a difference?

Where there is the willingness to "share everything" with governors, boundary disputes do not arise often. Running a secondary school is a bit more complex. Its curriculum is more of a mystery to lay people and some of its problems so much more public and potentially damaging, so there is more to be touchy about.

The head sets out with certain resources provided to run the school and decides how to use its space and time. Apportioning the hours in the week for various lessons - the timetable - is, in a day-by-day sense, a professional job. Increasing or decreasing the length of the day would, of course, be debated with you, the governors.

Then there are the people. The governors have decided how many and on what grades and will, I hope, have been involved in the choosing (just how much involved is up to you). But day by day the head directs the staff's work and is responsible (to you) for ensuring and improving its quality and efficiency.

The head also decides which groups of pupils teachers will teach, in which rooms, for how long, and what other duties they undertake - all within the limits of the job description against which they were appointed and the provisions of their contracts.

The head also deals with everyday misdemeanours and maintains good order and discipline. Major misdemeanours and serious indiscipline of staff or pupils will reach the governors if the head decides on sanctions.

You decide how the total budget is divided up. But then within each heading and any general rules governors have made, the head looks after the money day by day.

Every reference to the head should of course be "head and staff" since there will be consultation within the school at different levels on all these things and, in practice, some decisions will be delegated to staff.

The head is also the governors' chief adviser and by law must give you the information you ask for to carry out your governor functions. That includes, in particular, information about the performance of the school in every sense. But there are some more difficult, grey areas. All sorts of decisions have to be made about teaching.

What sort of provision is there, for instance, for staff to improve their professional performance? What exam boards and syllabuses to choose? How are pupils to be grouped by age and ability? What subject choices are they given? What activities are provided for them? Should pupils be entered for exams early? What provision should be made for very able pupils as well as those with special needs as legally defined? How much homework?

Professionals might claim these decisions for their own and often try. But if you think about it, these are all matters which either affect the performance of the school or are likely to be of great interest to parents. These are governors' concerns. How a teacher explains fractions or word order in a German sentence is not our business.

But the other decisions referred to above are strategic decisions since they affect the quality of learning at a level above the individual teacher and in some cases - for example, changing age or ability groups - may upset parents. They are interventions in the framework within which the teacher teaches. They should be shared with governors.

A good rule is, if in doubt, share. There are decisions to be made in schools, not every day but from time to time, where it would be folly for a head to proceed without governors' approval or for governors to lay down the law to teachers, especially if the lines are not clear.

Even where the balance of judgment is that the decision is a professional one, its importance or likely repercussions might still make it wise to get governors' understanding and consent.

Governors may lay down behaviour guidelines and decide whether permanently excluded pupils should be reinstated. They hear appeals of various kinds both for pupils and staff.

Governors have a say in admission policies for the school and changes in its character: the amount of involvement will vary with whether it is county, voluntary aided, or grant maintained. Governors decide each year whether or not the school should become grant maintained.

Governors are also responsible for the general conduct of the school - its standards of achievement, good order and good management. The headteacher is accountable to them for these aspects of the school's "conduct". They ensure that parents get all the information they are legally entitled to know about the school and they report to parents once a year on how they have done their job as governors. So they are accountable to parents and must communicate appropriately with them.

Do not think it is the governors' role to check up on people doing their job: the temperature of the classrooms, the punctuality of staff, how short the grass is cut, whether pupils seem interested in a lesson. There are people in the school who are paid to check up on these things as well as to do them. The headteacher is accountable to you for things going generally well. If something is wrong there will be a strategic approach to changing it. Concentrate on trying to understand what those strategic approaches are.

Our school is well run but rather old-fashioned and the head is suspicious of governors taking too much on themselves. There is a fair bit of parent muttering about some things. I have been told that we are accountable for the school and to me that means we listen to any serious criticism and try to deal with them, but the head and staff seem to think we should discourage direct approaches from parents.

As governors we are indeed accountable to parents and an important role is to listen in the community and try to ensure that concerns are appropriately dealt with.

Suppose there is general concern about a policy that affects many students. First, you must be satisfied that the parents have got the facts right. If there is misunderstanding you may be able to put it right, either by explaining what really goes on or trying to persuade the school to communicate better on the subject, but you won't attempt to whitewash anything that needs discussing.

If the concern is well founded and the matter important, and the school is not responding, you must try to get the matter on the agenda and assure parents that governors will discuss it. You must be rigorous and ensure it is properly considered and that parents are promptly told the outcome.

Individual complaints are more complex. Since they won't be policy matters it isn't your job as an individual governor to pursue them, but it is the governing body's job to agree procedures for ensuring that they are properly dealt with, smoothing the path to the school as necessary. This may mean you will encourage the parent who has approached you to see the head, a form tutor or subject teacher as appropriate, accompanying them if they are timid, or in extreme cases, going to the appropriate person on their behalf.

Never use governing body meetings to bring up purely individual complaints or raise a complaint of any kind at a meeting without informing the head first.

Joan Sallis's Agenda column appears weekly in The TES

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