Who’d be a School Governor?

Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw doesn’t so much tread on toes as stomp on feet and then slap their owner’s faces around a bit.

England’s Chief Inspector of Schools has in the past told teachers they make too many excuses for poor performance. They should work longer hours if they expect to get a pay rise. Head teachers should “stop moaning” and get on with the job.

Now he’s targeting school governors, the largest volunteer force in the country. There are 300,000 of us, a disparate group of (mostly) well meaning souls, some of whom according to Sir Michael are nowhere near up to the job.

The thing is, for all his crashing about like a bull in an educational china shop, the Ofsted chief is sometimes right.

The role of the school governor has changed beyond recognition in the past decade or so. But many of the people volunteering haven’t grasped how much is now expected of them. Nor are the systems in place to find the ones who do understand and to give them the right kind of support.

A decade or so ago, it was enough to show up once a term to offer a bit of friendly advice or vote on a school policy. Now (rightly) governors are expected to know their schools inside-out. They are also supposed to “challenge and support” teaching staff, a balancing act that requires considerable diplomatic skills.

What it means is that governors must understand not only how well the children in their school are achieving (including by ethnic and socio-economic group) but also, how well they’re being taught. By each of the teachers, in all the core subjects.

And where they’re not doing well enough or teaching isn’t up to scratch, governors must find out exactly what’s being done to put that right.

Then there’s the nitty-gritty of finances –increasingly devolved from local authority to individual school head. How to budget for a part time music teacher, new windows or translators for non-English speaking parents? All these things are ultimately the responsibility of the governing body.

(My meetings this term have ranged from detailed discussion of the kids’ progress in writing between Years 2 and 6, to how much we’ve paid for a new oven).

Then there are the tricky topics that leap out and ambush you. The parent unhappy with special needs provision for their child. The vulnerable youngster showing signs of possible abuse or neglect. The valuable teacher who has to take long-term sick leave. And yes, the parents complaining about the quality of school meals.

These are all things head teachers deal with in the course of a normal day. Governors are expected to know about them, to ask searching questions of staff and help them make the right decisions.

It’s a tall order for a bunch of volunteers made up of staff, parents and random members of the broader community. Church schools also have governors appointed by the diocese; academies have representatives of their sponsor.

Many are committed and hard working. Others, as Sir Michael Wilshaw suggests, are not. Some have never been told the truth about the effort they need to put in. A few possibly don’t really care, or in the worst cases, only care about the interests of their particular child.

And then there are the local authority appointees. A strange breed – I am one but I have no idea how or why. I was recruited through a general governors website and assigned to a school.

There was a Lib-Dem council at the time. When Labour took over a couple of years later, they tried to block my re-appointment on the grounds that I must be a Lib Dem member (wrong). They proposed replacing me with someone with no connection to the school. Struggling to get himself a parliamentary seat, this chap needed a local community boost to his CV, and his party bosses thought my governing body place would do just fine.

After my Chair of governors objected, Labour relented and then decided I must after all be one of them (wrong again). I was invited to their “Labour governors” meetings. Despite my repeated protestations – I work on behalf of the children at the school, not a political party – the invitations kept coming. Eventually I went and was surprised to find the meeting very useful. So why on earth were only “Labour” governors, a fraction of the total in the borough, invited? Where was the same information for everybody else?

That’s just one of the many aspects of school governance that make little sense and must stop. Recruitment is ad hoc and sometimes political, training can be appalling, support is patchy. I get the most useful information about how to do the job from my own searches online.

Paying some governors at struggling schools, as Sir Michael Wilshaw is suggesting, would make little if any difference to all that. It might even encourage involvement for the wrong reasons.

Would the paid ones have more authority – and thus more power – than the volunteers? And would everyone be eligible for payment – local councillors? Vicars? Parents? Or just the volunteers like me who believe we all have a stake in the education of this nation’s children and gain huge satisfaction from helping to improve their chances in life.

No. Let’s streamline governing bodies, make clear it’s a demanding role, recruit only those willing to put in the time and then train them and support them well.

That way there really will be “no excuses” for those few who don’t understand and challenge their schools as Sir Michael, with characteristic bluntness, suggests.