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Why visits need to be more formal

Governors' visits are one of the many aspects of our work we have not got quite right yet. In some ways, a small friendly primary like mine presents few problems to the visiting governor. In large secondaries, where subject specialists teach behind closed doors, a stranger sitting at the back of the classroom must always seem threatening and possibly hostile, bringing back horrid memories of tutors sitting in on teaching practices, or, even worse, OFSTED inspectors.

Our school is open plan, and the children spend part of their time working individually or in small groups at tables. Maximum adult guidance is required, and our rooms are usually pleasantly "womanned" with teachers, ancillaries, special needs helpers, volunteer parents and students on placement. An extra adult - like a visiting governor - is swiftly integrated. There is no "back" to sit at: everywhere buzzes with activity, and governors soon find themselves drawn into a group of children eager to share their work and explain it patiently to the visitor.

But pleasant and reassuring as this is, one is left with a feeling that there ought to be more than a mere pop in for a coffee and a chat and to play with the children. We need to formalise the process without turning it into an inspection.

Our code of conduct has already established some ground rules. Governors, as we are constantly reminded, have no powers as individuals. Visits should be made on behalf of the governing body, agreed in advance and reported back to the next meeting. Governors are advised to share their written report with the teacher concerned before presenting it, and are warned not to intervene in the classroom, make critical comments in front of the children, monopolise the teacher's time or name individual children in their report. But we need to go further.

Monitoring the curriculum is another area we have not properly got to grips with yet, so we have come up with the idea of tying our governors' visits in with the curriculum workshops we run for parents. We encourage governors to attend these, read the relevant curriculum mission statements and plans of work, and then focus their visit on seeing how well the practice matches up to the theory. We can also use visits to monitor the effectiveness of the improvements suggested in our survey of parents - the supervision of children at lunchtime, for instance.

Four of our governors work in school: the head, the teacher governor, a classroom ancillary and a lunchtime supervisor. They have previously never been nominated to do a governor's visit on the grounds that they are already there. What we propose is to pair them with a visiting governor to answer questions and take the pressure off the class teacher. In a primary school, in particular, it is sometimes difficult for a non-teacher to see the educational purpose of a particular activity, or how it fits into the framework of objectives for a subject area. We hope guided tours will help. Our long-suffering head has agreed to provide cover for this.

Whether we can live up to these ambitious plans remains to be seen - and I am aware that we are demanding more and more of our governors in terms of time and professionalism. I hope they can still drop in for a coffee and a chat sometimes too.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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