Former headteacher and current chair of governors Mike Walton argues that a closer relationship between parents and governors will benefit the whole school community

However much – or little – your school encourages parental involvement in aspects of its daily life, there can be no doubting that the school can benefit considerably through developing a close partnership between governors and parents. This article explores some of the basic elements in such a partnership, considers ways in which governors can effectively raise their profile among the school’s parents, looks at some practical opportunities which exist in every school for partnership working, with evidence from schools which have introduced practices clearly expressing their desire to work in close harmony. The reasoning is simple: if governors know what parents want, they will be more able to deliver it; and if parents know what governors do and who they are, they can help to make the governing body itself more effective. These two groups within the school community have many common interests and much to offer each other. Together they have much to contribute to the enhancement of the school as a whole.

Information and communication

The best place to begin, as in most partnerships and relationships, is to review what is being done in terms of communications, and the conveying of information from one group to the other. This is a two-way activity. And the first questions to start asking yourselves are about structures:

  • What structures are used to ensure that governors’ actions and decisions are communicated to parents?
  • What structures are there in place to ensure that the ideas and opinions of parents are regularly placed before the governing body?

You and your governing body will want to keep parents informed of the issues that are facing you and the decisions you reach. It is not enough to say that the minutes are on display in the school’s reception area (although this is clearly not a bad start). You will need to be more proactive than that to be truly effective. Until September 2005 there was at least the governors’ annual report and the follow-up annual governors’ meeting, but that has now been replaced by the annual school profile. These formal arrangements still leave a gap between the ideal and reality. If a governing body really means business about keeping parents fully informed it will require some initiative, a little imagination, and a bit of effort. The headteacher’s weekly or fortnightly newsletter is probably the most widely read of all communications that go home from school, apart from the pupils’ annual reports. Consider including a governors’ section within the newsletter. If the PTA has a section too this will mean a closer kind of three-way collaboration is already beginning. The governors’ section does not have to be in every issue, but might be contributed on a monthly or half-termly basis. One thing that happens when governors start to contribute such a section is that they consider more carefully what issues parents will want (or need) to know about. This might in turn lead to an improvement in the quality of the communication. If it is not possible to include this in the headteacher’s newsletter you might arrange for a separate governors’ supplement to be issued with it monthly.

Raising the profile among parents

It goes without saying that if governors are to raise their profile among parents, then they have to be seen and become known. A photo-display of governors in the reception area is helpful. But it’s not enough to have photos and names. Just as with staff photos in the same location, so with governors, it will help if there’s an indication underneath the photo of (a) what category of governor they are; (b) what their term of office is; and (c) what sub-committees and working parties they serve on, and what area(s) they are the link-governor for. It might be a good idea to put the copy of the minutes on display next to the portrait gallery. Then there’s the group of parent-governors. Parent-governors are, of course, exactly the same as any other governors; they don’t carry a special mandate to act or vote in any particular way. But it is usually assumed that parent-governors will have useful channels of communication with other parents, and that they will, informally at least, represent the sort of views commonly held by parents as a whole within your school. This is a channel of communication that needs to be exploited. Do your parent-governors ever meet together to discuss issues? Do they ever hold feedback meetings for parents? Do they attend PTA meetings to canvass opinions or convey information about proposals and decisions? Do they hold any kind of surgeries or clinics, to which parents can bring any anxieties, complaints or suggestions? Governors should attend as many functions as possible – and not as VIPs! For example, in my own school, the governors staff the gate at the PTA’s annual summer fair. We organise the rota ourselves. It gives us a chance to meet people and often some serious discussion takes place. Last summer we introduced a table close by where a couple of governors could sit and make themselves available for anyone who wanted to talk with us more formally. We always try to have at least one governor available and identified at every parents’ evening or other functions (such as curriculum-related meetings). In fact, it’s not a bad idea to have 100% coverage of all school events as your aim. It’s very effective if governors maintain a presence in the playground at the beginning and end of the school day; especially those governors who are also parents. By so doing, you can pick up the latest concerns, give guidance to parents with complaints, and generally make it very clear that the governors are not some distant, aloof gathering of people who take important decisions and are rather above all this stuff directly involving children: but that you are a group of genuinely concerned people, who know what the school is really like, and are an active part of its community.

Engaging in practical ways

The concept of governors keeping themselves informed about the school and parents, and keeping parents informed about governors is a sound basis for some even more beneficial initiatives which you could be taking. The next, very important, step is for governors to seek to engage with parents, to develop the partnership, to open up the potential for complementing each others’ involvement and interest in some serious joint working. First, do you know what skills the parents at your school have? You may be astonished by the potential that lies hidden not far beneath the surface. It’s possible that you already keep some kind of a ‘skills register’ of parents. I’d certainly advocate this being done, in the interests of home-school partnerships. It can be begun when the children first join the school, as part of the information-seeking exercise when you first meet the families coming to the school. It can then be updated on the basis of any surveys or questionnaires the school issues over the years, and further added to by ensuring that information gathered informally or incidentally (comments at a parents’ evening, mentions in letters from home, or things said by pupils about their parents) is channelled into a central pool. If governors are granted access to this information, you have the beginnings of plenty of fruitful parental involvement and partnerships. If not, or if the school does not collect such information, it may be an activity for the parent-governors to initiate. After all, if people trust them enough to vote for them, they’ll probably be in a good position to find out at least some of the information required to get the register started. Having used the skills register to identify some of the things that parents could offer to the work of the governing body, the next step is to put these ideas into practice. Are there parents with financial expertise? Maybe not available for full membership of the governing body, but why not as a member of the finance committee? Does someone else work in personnel/human resources? Then why not engage their expertise for the staffing committee, or get them to help draw up the person specs when you need a new headteacher or admin officer? Is another parent a tower of strength in local community activities? Perhaps you could persuade them to help you devise a good lettings policy which will bring income to the school, but still actively encourage community use. Is one of your parents a builder? Then why isn’t he co-opted on to your premises committee already! This kind of thinking can be taken further. When the school is planning a major development – new buildings, a new headteacher, perhaps even new premises, a merger with another school, giving the reception area a makeover, revising the arrangements for induction of Reception pupils and their families, or maybe some changes of direction following an Ofsted inspection – don’t undervalue the contribution which committed and experienced parents can bring to the whole planning process. In all of the examples given here, and in others, there is a wealth of potential benefit if you work with parents to produce the blueprint which will suit the school best. There is nothing like a partnership approach to bring out the best in people, both during the process of planning itself, and in the realisation of the plans. Involved people become committed people. Committed people tend to try to make things work. And become loyal partners if difficulties arise.

Working in partnership at Cleeve Primary School in Hull

At Cleeve Primary School in Hull, parents are involved in the planning, organising and delivery of family fun days. To celebrate the partnership with parents, a parents as partners evening was held in 2003, with over 300 guests present. The parents themselves showcased their activities. They had the responsibility of choosing the venue, preparing the presentations, sending out invitations, and organising transport for guests.

There is also a parents’ conference, now established as a regular feature of school life. Here the parents make presentations to the school staff and to other parents’ groups city-wide. The topic for Cleeve parents in 2003 was Working in Partnership. Parents attend weekly coffee mornings, and both questionnaires and awareness meetings are used as a means of encouraging them to share their views with the school. They are encouraged to think of themselves as critical friends. One direct result of their participation in this way has been the building of the community room for which funding was obtained by the school. It was parents who identified the need for this additional facility. They contribute in these very practical ways to the work of the governing body.