Where love is not all you need

Diana Hinds on what it takes to be an effective part of a special school's management team

THE role of a governor in a special school is, in many respects, like that of a governor in a mainstream school - balancing budgets, appointing staff, helping make management decisions.

But because of the nature of the school and the particular needs and demands of its pupils, the task can be even more arduous.

Smaller governing bodies in special schools, exacerbated by recruitment problems, also mean that a greater load tends to fall on individual members.

Special school governors often find themselves heavily involved in financial matters. Budgets are bigger than in mainstream, given the size of schools, and more complex because of the differing allocations made for each pupil according to the special needs category they fall into.

Funding often falls short of the school's requirements, and the onus is then on the governors to find ways of raising more money. Brian Hart, headteacher at The Cedar school in Southampton, for physically disabled children, has to rely on his governing body to find the money for crucial pieces of equipment.

"We need things like standing frames, and special seating, without which we wouldn't even be able to educate a child with severe cerebral palsy, who is unable to sit up."

With local authorities now trying to accommodate special needs children in mainstream schools where possible, some non-maintained special schools are having more of a struggle to survive financially.

Judith Clark, chair of governors at the Royal National Institute for the Blind's Sunshine House school in Southport, for visually-impaired children, says governors need to help market these schools, "targeting local authorities, and other groups like paediatric departments, to get support for the school and raise the profile".

Staffing in a special school is another major issue for governors. Not only are there the teachers to appoint and support, but also a sizeable team of care-workers, who may include nurses, social workers, and therapists. Governors need to feel comfortable dealing with a wide range of agencies, across education, health and social services.

"The school needs teams of people communicating well with each other and willing to work together: the governors have to be part of that," says Brian Hart.

Special school governors may play a stronger role in school management than in mainstream institutions, working closely with the head. In a special school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, they are also likely to be called on fairly frequently to sit on exclusion panels. Gerry Gamble, head of a residential EBD secondary, says he has two or three exclusion meetings a term, with only a choice of six governors to call on.

Ensuring academic igour in a school is another important task for a special school governor. The percentage of special schools which have failed Office for Standards in Education inspections is significantly higher than in the mainstream sector.

It is not enough, says Margaret Riddell, of Information for School and College Governors, simply to provide an atmosphere of tender loving care.

"As a governor, you have got to appreciate the importance of stretching the abilities of these special needs children. It is your job to ask questions and make sure that the teachers are really stretching the children, focusing on the development of each individual, and working towards specific targets."

On the emotional side, a governor's involvement in a special school can be taxing at times. Margaret Riddell, who was for three years a local authority governor at a special school for severely physically disabled children, remembers how distressing she found it at first.

"I felt I just couldn't help these children. I felt I was incompetent. I did learn to love it - but it can be very upsetting, and not every governor in the country could take it on."

Penny Beveridge, LEA governor for nine years at The Cedar School, says it can be very hard when a child dies, which, at her school, might happen twice a term.

"It's a very emotional time for the school, and the governors are very involved, going to the funeral, trying to support the staff."

The trials of an EBD school can be rather different. Don Sisson, chair of governors for more than 20 years at the William Henry Smith school in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, says people are sometimes shocked if they come into the school for the first time and see boys being violent and having to be restrained.

"But it's OK to be shocked: we need people, like governors, to come in and ask questions. When you've been at the school a long time, you tend to feel sympathetic to the head if there's a problem, but we need people to ask: is any of that our fault?"

Experience of children with special needs, while not strictly essential, is definitely a great asset for a prospective special school governor. Most of those who volunteer do so because ofprior involvement with such children.

"You need to have some empathy for children with special needs," says Judith Clark.

Recruitment, particularly of parent governors and perhaps particularly in EBD schools, is a problem for many special schools. But once committed, special school governors tend to stay in place for a good, long time.

"It can be a more rewarding role for a governor than in a mainstream school, because the school is smaller and you get very involved in watching the children's development," says Margaret Riddell. "I've never met a special school governor who doesn't find the job very satisfying."

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