Think twice before you leap

21st July 1995 at 01:00
A parent governor's lot can fall short of expectations, says a bruised incumbent

When you become a school governor you get a big file with loads of information on how to do the business. It is all couched in that bleak and bloodless prose beloved of bureaucrats and emetic to the rest of us. You would be better off reading one of the handbooks around, like Be An Effective School Governor by Polly Bird, though even this will not prepare you for the grisly and thankless reality.

In innocuous sentences it is suggested that you "find out what the main worries of the parents are" or "schools build up close relationships with LEA inspectors". Guidelines are suggested when there are specific complaints about teachers - but what about when some of the ancillary staff are in the line of fire? What if the management of the school is called in question? All well and good to say "careful watch should be kept on how the money is spent". How exactly do governors do this? - accompany the headteacher to the bank or sign the cheques one by one?

There is a deep and unresolved confusion in the role of governors, and parent governors are worst off of all. Given responsibility for the general conduct of the school and its delivery of the curriculum, governors are specifically debarred from involvement (or as some would say, interference) in its day-to- day running.

Parent governors have most inside knowledge of the running of the school, not just from other parents but from the foals' mouths as it were - their own children, whom they most naturally will tend to believe against any number of respected professionals.

Most headteachers would like nothing better than a team of governors who will leave everything to them as professionals. But is that a responsible way to be a parent governor?

Parents need someone to hold their hand; many of them are just as scared of teachers as they were when they were young. And sometimes they need an advocate, when they are either too unconfident or too disorganised to be able to speak to an establishment figure.

Of course, some parents are just meddlers and others are anxious with no cause. But they too must be offered a fair chance to communicate. How much more so those whom the parent governor feels has a just concern, query or complaint. If these are not properly aired, they will in the end explode.

Which brings us to the annual meeting for parents. All the advice on this is anodyne: produce a comprehensive report, publicise the meeting, do not refer to individual teachers by name, be prepared to answer any questions. What a love fest it might be, with the headteacher doshing out information like confetti and the whole school united in hosannas.

But of course it is not always like this. Teachers have been to known to bully students, to seduce them into perverted sexual practices, to embezzle money, to lose children on school trips and to cheat about exam results, to name but a few of the vices to which the flesh is heir. If anything like this has happened, parents will be angry - and running the annual parents' meeting will be a few degrees less hell than queuing for bread in Sarajevo.

I can give some advice, though, after a few years spent running and dodging. Abe Lincoln was right. Own up, say you did it with your little hatchet. Do not collude with any attempts to sweep problems under the carpet. You know what happens to old bits of food under a carpet. Next time you go there, the red ants swarm out, biting furiously. Ouch.

And next time the slot of parent governor comes up, think twice. It may be better for the education of your child to spend every Wednesday morning hearing reading than to spend 10 evenings a year reading the turgid prose of LEA documents. And it will certainly be better for your peace of mind. Remember what was said about the press: "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, power without responsibility". Well, governors are in a uniquely reversed situation. They have responsibility without power. It's called being the fall guy.

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