Joan Sallis examines some of the different issues that affect governors in primary and secondary schools

Recently I met a brave parent governor who believed in seeing the job through to the end.

When her child moved on to secondary school she again stood as a parent representative in the hope that she would enjoy it as much, feel just as involved, be just as sure of doing a relevant and rewarding job. Sadly she was disappointed.

She had felt part of the primary school:

  • She had been linked to a class so she went through the whole experience with one increasingly familiar group of children and got to know at least half the teachers.
  • She learned a lot in the process about the various stages of the curriculum, the testing regime, the infinite variety of children and the craft of teaching.
  • She helped with little classroom jobs, went on outings, wiped tears in many a nativity play, end of term assembly and final goodbyes. She welcomed and looked after visitors.
  • When it came to the meetings and discussing the curriculum, the budget, the school’s performance, new appointments etc, she was among friends and understood how everything fitted together. She felt useful.

Another world
The secondary school was a different world. This mother like many others felt a bit redundant sometimes. There were more men in proportion. They were a mixture, but busy-busy; more had professional standing in law, finance, politics.

The secondary curriculum was unfamiliar, and some of the tasks were very formal and a bit alarming – exclusion appeals for instance – someone’s life-chances in the balance. She didn’t understand a lot of the terms used and some subject names were another language.

In her new world:

  • There was no means of getting to know a group of children really well or identifying the different subject teacher – or subjects for that matter. Involvement in activities was in less homely things like annual play performances or meetings to discuss curriculum changes or exam results, and they were more like public meetings.
  • All the problems seemed bigger and more remote from everyday life.
  • After an Ofsted inspection the inspectors recommended attaching governors to a subject. It felt too much like monitoring, and our governor felt uncomfortable about asking questions in case they were taken as criticism. She was allocated Humanities without really knowing what it covered. Her head of department was very defensive if she even got within spitting distance of a comment or question.

How I travelled the journey the other way
I have become interested in this subject because, unusually, I went in the other direction.

My children were already in secondary school when we experienced the reforms which brought ordinary folk onto governing bodies at all, and I did a very long and, in retrospect, hard stint in a large comprehensive. It was intensely interesting of course and I became more experienced and confident than many, learned a great deal through the school’s progress up – and down – the league tables, goodness knows how many staff appointments, disciplinary issues, curriculum changes, inspections, even Special Measures and back again, and much heartache. But I did, even with experience, sometimes feel very much the detachment from reality which that parent governor spoke of.

After a short break and some sadness in my personal life I realised that, as a grandmother, perhaps I should offer myself to a primary school and, truthfully, it was like a warm bath after a winter day out.

Attachment to a class, of course, seeing the year unfold with 30 children who would be ‘mine’ until they left. Sitting in on Inset days so learning about the ideas currently in the air, realising that tremendous excitement that the dull days of basics and testing were coming to an end and school was bursting with creativity again. Getting to know teachers really well. Helping a group of slow readers. Helping to welcome visitors and feeling an absurdly personal pride when they too thrilled to hear what ‘we’ were doing. I said ‘we’ – that’s how it was.

Above all I feel a real appreciation of teachers and their work and a more sure-footed connection between the joys of the classroom and the more serious role which governors play.

Must it really be so different?
So of course I ask the question, must it really be so different? Have we done enough to encourage ‘ordinary’ people to become governors of secondary schools and then to help them understand and, dare I say, enjoy it? Or for some unknown reason, do we want to make it mysterious?

Even with the problems inseparable from school size and pupil age, are there not more people-friendly ways of relating governors to the institution in a more personal sense, helping them make sense of the structures and problems and appreciate the people?

Have we gone a bit too far in recruiting governors with special skills and over-full lives and not looked hard enough for some who can follow a tutor group through the stages, sit in on practical lessons, rehearsals, student reviews of work experience, soak it up and suddenly feel empowered to be useful?

I did indeed have some of those experiences as a fortunate secondary school governor. Which of those mentioned was the most valuable and memorable? Listening to and minuting the feedback on work experience. Fascinating and useful!

Here is just some of the advice they said they’d give to next year’s cohort:

  • (ruefully) ‘wear sensible shoes’;
  • (darkly) ‘never agree to bath a dog’;
  • (profoundly) ‘when choosing don’t think about your interests, eg animals, fashion, electronics – think skills’.
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