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Joan Sallis considers the relationship between the headteacher and governor, and explores mutual expectations and issues of respect

I often think how much success or failure in key relationships of our lives depends on having appropriate expectations of those we live or work with, and indeed of ourselves. Often success also depends on making expectations explicit, even negotiating them. Too high and disappointment is followed by resentment. Too low and we debase and demoralise each other and performance suffers. Teachers know how important it is to get this right in the learning process. Parents know how crucial it is that your adolescent children know what time you want them home, what noise level you can tolerate in their music, how many coffee cups you are prepared to retrieve from under their beds. In the spheres of employment, marriage, other partnerships and friendship there are no blood ties, so it is even more important that expectations should be clear, and that we accept that they may need negotiation among free and equal partners.

Heads and governors

You cannot escape the fact that since the 1980s, when ‘proper’ governing bodies came into existence, the relationship between the headteacher and the governing body has become fundamental to the school’s success and harmony. Governors have responsibility, perhaps without power. Heads have to get used to sharing confidential information and tricky problems with people they can’t control. How often are expectations of each other discussed, negotiated if necessary and agreed upon in a constructive way? I say constructive because I can’t count how many times the discussion in my hearing has turned into a grumbling competition.  Yet vital things like honesty, loyalty, hard work and trust come into the equation. Predictably the lack of clarity causes confusion, resentment and, at worst, total breakdown of the very relationship which is designed to unite, guide and enrich the school.

The value of open discussion

I have assisted with a number of conferences at which heads and governors were encouraged to discuss these problems openly, make separate lists of their expectations of the other partner, modify them after extremely frank debate and, hopefully, arrive at two lists they could agree on. I was present at two conferences on the subject in the same LEA, with an interval of quite a few years, and the best experience I ever had at a conference was to observe at the second how relationships had moved on and how much less irritable, how much more constructive, the lists on both sides had become even before discussion at the event. I wish I had more evidence that the government’s preparation for headship course (NPQH) had tackled these problems. The somewhat confrontational lists below will provoke some angry reactions on both sides. Heads will point out that many governors do overstep the mark and endanger the head’s authority, failing to understand the magnitude and vulnerability of their responsibility and the need for confidentiality. Governors will point out that better communication with parents and community is fundamental to their role, that it is simply not true that they do not have responsibility for the curriculum and conduct of the school, that everything is not confidential, and that it is vital that they have the right to bring up matters of legitimate concern, which means, some say, in the agenda. Sharing of influence is not easy and it is obvious that discussion needs to clarify such matters as:

  • Governors’ role as a link with the community, listening to and conveying its concerns and wishes.
  • Governors’ right to shared ownership of the agenda.
  • The need to take account of governors’ work commitments and allow for these in meeting arrangements.
  • Governors’ shared responsibility for the curriculum and style of the school.
  • Their role in semi-judicial matters – pupil exclusion, teacher discipline etc.
  • The need for simple and accessible language.
  • Governors’ right to ask questions and to initiate debate on matters they see as crucial to the health of the school.
  • Their need to feel valued.

And the wider agenda?

Respecting and trusting each other as partners in a joint enterprise, making different contributions of equal value and being clear about territory without behaving territorially must, in short, be the basis of expectations.

Some controversial items from wish lists of what heads and governors expect from each other

Heads

We expect governors:

  • To refrain from discussing with parents and other outsiders any issues of school policy or bringing gossip to meetings.
  • To treat everything that happens at meetings as confidential.
  • To respect the boundaries between governance and management and to accept without question the head’s authority in matters concerning the curriculum and conduct of the school.
  • To confine all contributions to matters on the agenda.

Governors

We expect heads:

  • To trust us and consult us before making important changes in the running of the school.
  • To respect our role as the school’s eyes and ears in the neighbourhood.
  • To allow us to suggest items for the agenda and to allow departures from the agenda when governors wish to raise a parental or community concern.
  • To allow us to see confidential reports on teachers’ competence or conduct.
  • To accept that we must determine the times of governors’ meetings as we are volunteers and working people.
  • To give us free access to classes.
  • To recognise that we are lay people and to give us all possible help by avoiding jargon and explaining specialised issues BUT
  • To respect our opinions and accept that when we understand the words we are quite capable of debating the issues.
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