The vital role of the parent-governor

Written by: Gerald Haigh | Published:
Image: iStock

The government’s latest White Paper proposals show a failure to understand the nature of school governance, says Gerald Haigh

“We will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards.”
Educational Excellence Everywhere, Department for Education White Paper, March 2016

The secretary of state says being a parent is not of itself sufficient qualification for being a school governor. She speaks of “the right skills for governance”.

But what does she think those skills are? It’s not difficult to guess – financial acumen will be somewhere in the mix I imagine, together with managerial experience and the ability to interpret data.

Against that, what price the skills of school governor Mrs Novak, who lives 300 yards from the school gate, has children in years 7 and 9 and knows lots of the other students as well as a fair proportion of their parents and grandparents?

Elected by other parents to represent them, Mrs Novak is a direct link into the elusive, restless and sometimes rumour-laden hinterland which her school, like any other, ignores at its peril. She also demonstrates a fundamental principle, which is that among the committees, cheerleader teams and boards that are growing up in today’s schools, it is only the governing body that is locally rooted and elected and, crucially, has the parents of current students at the top table by right.

Part of the problem is an apparent failure at government level to understand the nature of school governance. Their subtext is that schools are now too serious to be left in the hands of well-meaning amateurs. In fact, being a governor has always been serious.

What could be more important than appointing a headteacher, which is just one of the statutory duties of governing bodies? (They take advice, but never assume that governors will allow themselves to be told which headship candidate to appoint.)

Then there’s the “professionalism” thing. The whole point about governors is that, fundamentally and deliberately, they are required to be neither inspectors nor managers; they do not need to be experts in classroom practice, curriculum content or school administration.

What they are required to do, however, is set the school’s strategic vision and ensure, by well-structured monitoring, that all policies and procedures are directed towards it, a duty which involves fearlessly holding the leadership to account.

You think Mrs Novak cannot play a full part, using a wealth of life experience and always with a mental picture of real children and families?

Another principle of school governance says that all governors, including the chair, are equal. Once at the table they are united in the common cause of ensuring that their school offers its students the best possible life and learning experience.

That’s why it is necessary to avoid in meetings, the term “parent-governor”, as in: “And what do our parent-governors have to say about this?”

A wise chair encourages each governor to be heard on all subjects, drawing out any who feel themselves outgunned by more confident members. That way, fresh, and sometimes surprising insights emerge, and governors who may not tick the competency boxes envisaged by the secretary of state show themselves to have unsuspected and valuable skills.

In my many years of working with governors, being one myself, and working as a governor trainer for the local authority, I came to see that school governance can, and should, accommodate a far wider range of life-skills, attributes and personalities than our political leaders seem to believe essential.

We must learn to be patient, for example, with the one who deploys the “dog-with-a-bone” strategy that makes the professionals look at each other and shake their heads.

Ms Morgan probably thinks that’s inefficient. I say if leaders sigh and roll their eyes, that’s probably a sign that governors are on the right track.

But, you will say, not all governing bodies have the knowledge or will to function properly. Sadly, that’s often true. Meetings can be too long and inconclusive, roles and responsibilities misunderstood or unclear. There are chairs who exceed their authority, or become subservient to the head. None of this is primarily down to the failings of individuals, and the answer lies in training.

The White Paper rightly emphasises governor training, but it seems to me what’s needed should cover, as well as any technical competencies, the “softer” skills around roles and responsibilities, team-work, the conduct of meetings, respectful listening, working with leadership teams, drawing the best from each person.

By this means, parents and other elected local governors, who are at the beating heart of their school by right, will be empowered to use the abilities which they already possess.

The point is that governing bodies should be diverse in every sense, independently minded, awkward where necessary, fearlessly unconventional when the mood suits, and fundamentally representative of the local community. Turning governors into box-ticking apparatchiks is to misunderstand how not only schools, but our nation, should work.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1


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