Welcome the peace-maker;Briefing;Governors

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Counselling can help governing bodies sort out their feuds and failures. Joan Sallis, TES Agenda columnist, tells how it is done.

TEAM re-building sessions for school governing bodies are more and more in demand. Sometimes some governors will say straight off that they are in a mess, but more often merely that they are not working together as well as they ought. Is this a sign of the times?

The first time I worked with another governing body, I felt extremely nervous and inadequate. Yet, if you are a governor with some experience and no involvement in the school concerned, it is often surprisingly easy at least to identify what is amiss and, perhaps, to relate this to the timeless principles of working together which come up in the Agenda column every week.

Recent developments in law and guidance make it a lot harder to play at being governor. Governors may have had a major strategic role for centuries, but never has its nature been spelled out with such cruel clarity before.

Responsibility for school improvement, target-setting, being "marked" by inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education (see last week's TES) - it's not easy to pretend any more that what you are actually doing measures up to such challenges. And if there is territorial warfare between governors and professionals - which few schools escape - it begins to show.

School-based governor training has long been favoured by better organised and resourced local authorities. Although off-site sessions provide the straight information, the contact with governors from other schools and the comparing and contrasting which are so valuable, you still have to go back and work with the same colleagues at the end of the course.

School-based work is, however, expensive in trainer-time, and governors may not feel easy confessing feuds and failures to staff from their own authority, however governor-friendly.

There is no magic formula for helping a group of assorted volunteers work better together, and it soon makes you feel humble to see the obstacles other people have to confront and the courage and dedication they have already shown before seeking help. Any honest person who's been a school governor for some years will inevitably have stumbled and fallen so many times that complacency is quite out of place. Showing your own scars and helping others bandage their bleeding knees may be the most suitable response.

I find it better not to know anything in advance except the vital statistics of the school, and to resist any attempts at bending my ear by the more powerful participants. In a way, innocence is a good protection, and you can truthfully begin by saying that you know nothing about why you've been asked to come - you will inevitably step on some tender places. It's usually prudent to add that in all probability almost every member will emerge recognising some personal responsibility for the difficulties.

One way of building this thought into your opening remarks is to go through the different categories of governor and describe in each case the most common mistakes or difficulties. Headteachers, for instance, may be locked in a time-warp about governors and still see them as people who will support the school right or wrong, afford a range of contacts and networks for practical help and, occasionally, act as a sounding board to gauge community feeling to proposed change. Such heads will resist any challenge to "professional" decisions - even if these are clearly strategic in character.

Parent and teacher governors may not be very clear about the representative part of their role or may take too short-term and sectional a view. Or they may be unreasonably obstructed by others in playing a full part.

Local authority governors may be too party political, not enough involved in the school, or too broad in their view of local interests. Co-opted governors with expertise may see that expertise as a reason to dominate on expert matters instead of helping others to decide them. Foundation governors (because they form so large a group) can appear to others to be a power bloc, rather than individuals participating freely. And so on.

Another good opening procedure is to say that you are going to run very quickly through the main kinds of dysfunction governing bodies have displayed in your experience and briefly hint, for each, at the way forward. These will include varieties of power imbalance, for example, where an individual or group seems to be hogging too much of the action, inequalities in contributions or breaches of corporate loyalty or trust. Many such problems can be eased by changes in the way the governing body manages its work and its information, combined with a bit more plain-speaking when necessary.

At the end, anyone can ask you to go into more detail. You may find that you can tell from their faces when you are getting warm, and take it from there, sparing their blushes. You will have made them feel that it is all right to say certain things which till then may have seemed unmentionable. When the problems are fairly mild you will often find people very happy to discuss ways in which they could prevent the imbalances and misunderstandings.

Most problems are not long-standing or insoluble. Once they have been simply defined, the shared desire to do better will often produce its own solutions. Clearly, this is far better than having an outsider prescribe.

The very fact of discussing of self-improvement liberates energy and goodwill and they find they can suddenly do it without you.

But what about the really bad cases? The ones where half the people in the room didn't want you to come and three quarters are only there under protest themselves? Where the room is so full of baggage that you've got nowhere to put your feet? Where every person present knows exactly who their villain is (and there may be a number) and isn't going to budge?

Heavy territorial postures by heads and staff figure often. So do serious degrees of power-drift within the governing body, ranging from an all-powerful chair or caucus group to tensions between old and new governors, between local community-based governors and more remote ones co-opted for expertise (and, amazingly, either of these last can be seen as the A team), between white collar and blue collar, between black and white. You may even find a school exhibiting all these divides, crisis-crossed like the wrong side of a home-made Fair-Isle jumper.

Where the run-through of other governors' problems doesn't reveal what is wrong, and you sense that the conflicts are deep and long-standing, you may have to resort to more risky methods, such as giving every person a sheet of paper and asking them anonymously to put into a hat a sentence saying why they think you have been asked to come. The outcome can be quite a shock, but for better or worse it will almost certainly get things moving.

When you think you have identified some of the problems, you will have to risk letting it all come out, pointing out how silly it is to go to all this trouble and then fail to share their concerns.

I know that sometimes you have to go away and leave it like that, at least until the dust has settled. I also know that it's easy to say, as I sometimes do when it isn't my problem, that there are nuts-and-bolts solutions to almost everything, that a few smart alterations in working practices can cure the accumulated tensions, embarrassments, unspoken resentments and offended pride built up over years.

But although a "facilitator" may make people feel that it's all right to say terrible things hitherto unspoken, and the time comes when they have to be said, such deep wounds take time to heal. Nor would I deny that in any hundred governors you'll be lucky if one or two weren't very difficult to work with. In the end we have to find in ourselves the tolerance and the practical solutions for one reason alone, and a visiting auntie may have to say this: we are bound together in a vital enterprise for which we have volunteered - our failure to get ondamages children.

Knowing this is what makes governors seek help. And often we do need someone else to identify what we have to do. I can't tell you how often I have wished I could write to Joan Sallis.

Agenda will return next week

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today