Can individual governors really make a difference? Joan Sallis looks at how and why governors should get under the skin of their school

Even experienced governors often ask how they can play a useful part as individuals. When we talk about governors’ roles it is almost always about the decisions we make together and our formal responsibilities. But isn’t there scope, we wonder, with the interest and commitment we feel, to contribute more than just our opinions and our vote? At the very least, shouldn’t individual governors become familiar with the school at work, perhaps take on a special area of contact and commit themselves to spending time there, without infringing the final responsibility we all share? Obviously policy decisions are corporate and accountability indivisible as they always have been. But we don’t have to make big decisions every day to change the school’s character, set targets or fix the budget. The real question is how we grow as people to prepare for the big decisions when they arise.

New roles for new people
The truth is that school governance attracts a completely different type of person from the stereotype of our youth, before parent and community governors brought the warm breath of the homes, the streets and the workplaces into the affairs of schools. It doesn’t now seem natural to meet termly to consider big issues without somehow getting under the skin of the school we are talking about.

Everything in its place 
I hasten to say that there must be times when the governing body is not just a collection of separately contributing individuals with their human faces, their funny ways, their talents and feelings.

When those occasions come we do what has to be done and do it properly, fairly – and inseparably. I’m just thinking now of the space between such events and how we use it. Let’s just jot down some of the opportunities for getting to know the school better.

Governors’ expectations Governors today commonly include in their expectations of the role:

  • attending special events
  • visiting and observing
  • attachment to a class or a subject area
  • visiting and perhaps sharing some of their experiences and skills
  • reading with individual children needing extra help

Sharing experience

It is good for schools to come into contact with a variety of experience and move beyond the old model of making sure of a free accountant to do the budget! But do we want to give the impression that schools are only interested in free professional skills? Far better to absorb the wisdom that comes from a huge variety of life and work experience, including the skills of mothers at home who often speak as though they have nothing to contribute. I have already supported the study of toys and games of long ago in two age groups and had a long Year 3 queue to ask how exactly to make the ‘whip’ of ‘whip and top’, though finding it hard to get them to imagine streets free of traffic to play it in. I hope soon to fit into the national curriculum on World War 2 in Year 6 by telling them about receiving evacuees rather than being them (the latter dominating in London) as well as about sweet rationing and re-knitting old jumpers. Schools should open their minds more to the experience there is in every community. There is a huge amount we can share with children without any special qualifications.

What form of attachment?
This is a big question. The box above throws in some ideas.

The attachments most commonly advocated are to a curriculum area, especially by Ofsted inspectors and particularly if weaknesses have been exposed. I am strongly against this personally because it is asking for conflict with sensitive teachers. If the governor just happens to be qualified in the subject concerned it’s threatening and if he or she isn’t it can be ludicrous. We must always be careful to emphasise that governors come into school to learn, not judge. There are many better ways of making links. Far better is an attachment to a class in a primary school or perhaps a tutor group in a secondary, moving up with that age group. Thus one gets to know a group of children well, but is involved with several teachers over a period and can compare them in their impact on the same children. Visits can be timed to catch lessons with a lot of participation or space for a governor to relate a relevant experience – from evacuation to whip and top! Obviously governors can be particularly suitable visitors in participatory activities, from PSHE lessons  to making Mothers’ Day cards.

Special occasions
We all weep our share in nativity plays and leavers’ assemblies. Other suitable occasions can be off-timetable days exploring the environment, cooking, or making newspaper mummies and converting the hall into the Valley of the Nile when that stage in the national curriculum arrives!

A school which is doing all it should to develop social skills, encourage creativity and problem solving, and talk about relationships will find plenty of outstanding occasions for governor participation. Such a school these days will have lots of visitors from within the system and governors can help by making them welcome. Governors with time can do wonders just listening to children read for a couple of hours a week, being very careful not to claim any special skills or to get drawn into what may be home problems. Being scrupulous about these last conditions is essential. Sharing a book one to one is a very bonding and releasing experience and the consequences I have found to be amazing.

Today’s schools offer a great deal of scope for governors who can spare time to get under their skins a little, to understand them better and to share their own experience of the world beyond. The governing body’s formal work is sure to benefit.