Wanted: public spirit and expertise

26th May 2000 at 01:00
David Marriott offers pointers for specialist governors as the pressure increases for a more 'professional' approach

THE opposite poles of professionalism and amateurism generate the key tension between school staff and the governing body. Governors should not be, or pretend to be, professionals or experts in education. They are meant to be "a body of local people to represent the public interest in the school's affairs".

Nationally, we are fighting a losing battle to recruit governors, reflecting an accurate cross-section of the local community. Yet the pressure towards the professionalisation of governance grows.

The Office for Standards in Education's new handbook describes an effective governing body as having "high levels of expertise". Expertise in governance or education? Such careless statements unwittingly raise the pole on the recruitment high jump. Department for Education and Employment documents demand a reading-age way above the national average. Sun readers need not apply. School governance remains a largely white, middle-class


At the same time, the trend is towards "specialist governors". It started with the special educational needs governor. Then came the literacy governor, followed by the numeracy governor. A recent article in TES Online (March 10) described the role of the information technology governor and many governing bodies appoint a health and safety governor. Where will it end? When every governor has taken on a specialist role, what will happen to their amateur status, or are the two things compatible?

Perhaps these developments are inevitable, given the ever-increasing responsibilities on governing bodies. But as governors become quasi-professionals, there is a greater possibility of territorial conflict with the real professionals - or do heads and teachers prefer a more specialist governing body? Ambivalence exists in both camps.

Whatever the answers, the specialist governor walks among us and it's worth clarifying what he or she might be expected to do. The linking of individual governors to curriculum areas, teachers, classes or year groups is a well-established way of helping governors to understand something about the curriculum, teaching and learning.

When I was a governor, we excitedly set up links with faculties. After a month or two we began to ask each other: "What are you doing, then? Have you been in yet?" It turned out that not much was happening and what was going on was patchy at best. We realised that we needed to go back to first principles and agree on what the role of the "link governor" should involve. Having worked this out, in discussion with key staff, the system began to work properly. As is ofen the case, a simple, clear and agreed framework made all the difference. Structures, paradoxically, are liberating.

We agreed that link governors would, wherever possible:

receive regular minutes and reports from their curriculum area;

attend a termly meeting with the curriculum area co-ordinator;

attend meetings involving development planning;

inform the co-ordinator of relevant outcomes of governing body meetings and provide clarification when necessary;

form part of the interview panel for appointments in the curriculum area;

visit lessons in the curriculum area, especially to note continuity and progression;

shadow the co-ordinator, by arrangement and agreement.

Such a role definition was conspicuous by its absence in relation to the literacy governor, especially in all the training materials. In some cases this led to the teacher governor being appointed as literacy governor, defeating the whole object of the exercise. Since then, it has been defined well in the National Literacy Trust's Literacy Guide for School Governors.

By the time the numeracy strategy was launched, a section on information for governors included a helpful description and set of "hints". Based on these descriptions, and work in progress in Wiltshire on the role of the special needs governor, I offer the following model job description or person specification for any specialist governor.

Key tasks or responsibilities are to:

provide a link between the governing body and relevant teacher;

provide a link between the governing bodyschool and parentscommunity;

promote the interests of the subject;

undertake relevant training;

liaise regularly with relevant teachers;

visit classrooms to observe the subject being taught;

monitorevaluate the provision and use of relevant resources.

Person specifications include being :

committed to being a friend (not inspectorhead role);


empathetic and sensitive;

respectful of confidentiality;

effective communicator;

interest in the subject;

sense of humour;

Ability to focus on "the

big picture".

Despite my misgivings over the appropriateness and likely consequences of the trend towards the specialisation of governors, I feel that this template should help governors make sense of their new roles. Used in conjunction with a policy for classroom visits (negotiated with staff), it can promote a healthy relationship between amateurs and professionals.

David Marriott is head of governor support at Wiltshire County Council, and author of The Effective School Governor, published by Network Educational Press Ltd (01785 225515).

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