Lindy Hardcastle believes a strong indication of the healthy functioning of a school is the visible involvement of an active body of governors.
When trainee teachers spend time in schools, they should be learning much more than how to teach. Working in a variety of schools should enable job applicants to compile a check-list to be used at interviews - a mental list, of course, rather than one brandished on a clip board. If you are lucky, you may have a whole day in school before you face the question: "If you are offered this job, will you take it?" Knowing what to look for will ensure that you give the right answer. If you do not get a chance to look round at all, ask yourself what they are hiding.
There are obvious indicators of a happy, flourishing school. Is the head both available and approachable? It's not always the same thing. "My door is always open" does not necessarily mean anyone will ever want to go through it. The state of the boys' toilets is another strong pointer. (Well, go and look. ) Do the children arrive smiling? Do the staff? Do they smile at each other? Are the school prospectus, the development plan, and policies on all areas of the curriculum live, working documents, or did the school secretary have to blow the dust off when you asked to see them?
And what are the governors like? If the answer to that is: "What governors?" perhaps you should try to find out why.
In a primary, you should meet governors on an almost daily basis, as staff, parents and community governors are regular and welcome visitors to the classroom. In secondaries they may be less visible, but ask about them - do the staff speak of them warmly as supportive friends or warily, as people to be reassured, humoured and, if necessary, circumvented? When you were introduced to the staff, was it mentioned which teachers and support staff were also governors, or was it not considered important?
Governors are now responsible for deciding how the school's budget is spent, which in turn determines the level of staffing and numbers of responsibility posts. They set the head's and deputy's salaries. They have overall responsibility for establishing policies on all areas of school life and monitoring their effective implementation. This involves such crucial matters as special needs provision, religious education and collective worship, sex education and health and safety policy, as well as delivery of the national curriculum and reporting to parents. They form committees to deal with pupil exclusions, staff grievance and discipline and parental complaints. They produce an annual report to parents and a post-OFSTED action plan.
In an ideal situation, all these responsibilities are shared with the staff and head in a way which allows the school to feel it has a clear, agreed mandate from the community for the policies it is pursuing. In practice, boundaries are not clearly drawn, and the amount of real power exercised by the governors depends on their level of commitment and expertise, and the willingness, or otherwise, of the head to give them the information they need to contribute effectively to decision-making. Governors can be tyrants or puppets. Look for something in between.
One indicator is whether governors are involved in the interview procedure. Under local management of schools, they appoint headteachers, and must be involved in the appointment of deputies. But I have seen it proposed, both by heads in a draft Code of Conduct for Governors, and in a recent OFSTED report, Lessons in Teamwork, that responsibility for all other appointments should be delegated to the head. I disagree, and not, I hope, just because I am a governor.
The governing body of a school is made up of representatives of various interest groups: teachers, parents, local authority appointees nominated by the political parties in proportion to the balance of power on the council, and co-optees who represent the wider community. These can be local business people, staff from other schools or pre-schools within the family, support staff, clergy, or anyone else who wishes to serve and support the school.
If the headteacher does not value the input of these people when deciding on staffing levels, drawing up job descriptions and choosing the best candidate, does he or she really care what the people they represent think about the school?
Will a head who cannot weld a group of well-intentioned volunteers into a vocal and well-informed support group for the school really be concerned about the professional development of teaching and support staff?
Governors, like staff, are a valuable resource for any school and should be developed and used accordingly. Schools get the governors they deserve: so if the ones you meet at interview are friendly, well-informed and devoted to the school - when you are offered the job, take it!
Lindy Hardcastle is a governor of a primary school in the Midlands