Joan Sallis opposes the removal of ‘untrained volunteers’, such as parents and members of the community, from governing bodies – or the attempt to ‘professionalise’ them

Teachers who know me know I love them. Some also know that, as a parent member of the Taylor Committee 30 years ago, I fought hard for their right to strong representation on the new, broadly-based, community governing bodies along with elected parents and community representatives.

I have always supported not only strong teacher representation in general but their status and good treatment on the primary and secondary governing bodies on which I have served. I was therefore deeply disturbed to hear that, at their recent conference, the general secretary of the NASUWT backed up Ed Balls’ promise of a wide-ranging review of governing bodies in the following terms:
‘An essential public service in which there is massive investment of public money should not be in the hands of untrained volunteers, however well-meaning.’

Count your blessings
Teachers have been ambivalent about governing bodies before. I believe that the NUT deeply regretted their hasty response to the Taylor Report as a ‘busybodies’ charter’ and in my experience their members, indeed all teachers, value their opportunity to have, for the first time, as a result of Taylor not just a say but a strong vote on school policies at all times.

Do they really think that the government’s intention to ‘professionalise’ school governance, as forecast by Ed Balls, means continuing the generous representation given to teachers in the decision-making process, while removing ‘the untrained volunteers’ from parents and community (democratically elected) whoever they may be? Not likely. Teachers, parents and community representatives will suffer together in this initiative and schools will become very undemocratic places.

I believe that teachers who think about such things and who value the right won for them less than 30 years ago – not long in the history of democracy – to participate in school policy making, will soon see the real agenda. Our amazing governors all over the country undertake training, spend time in their schools and provide not only support such as children never had before but open safeguards for teachers’ well-being.

The concept of ‘our school’ became indivisible the day that the Taylor Committee reported and, from 30 years’ experience as a governor, I would predict that teachers will be the worst victims of any attempt to ‘professionalise’ school governing bodies. Their professional skill is to teach but, as governors, they develop with others quite unrelated skills in the policy-making of complex institutions and also a sense of common purpose with parent and community colleagues.

Other trends
I am even more concerned about the union’s no doubt well-intentioned but unconsidered words in the context of other government education policies which horrify me.

In so-called Trust schools, which are a cornerstone of government policy, there could be ‘untrained volunteers’ in plenty since there is no evidence of any plan to safeguard either the quality or the present representative balance of interests on school governing bodies. Indeed, all but one of the parent governors (could be as many as seven) will be appointed by the Trust, not elected, and this will unbalance the representation from the start.

Should not teachers and those who represent them be vigilant? I would not take a bet on the continuation of their representative rights. Any measure which weakens the elected elements on governing bodies is in my view a threat to the well-being of teachers in schools and the kind of open discussion of policies which safeguard essential liberties. What is proposed could become a new version of cash for honours in that people whom we do not know will be given great power in return for private investment in public education. I do not trust private investment in public education. Neither, I would have thought, would those who represent teachers.

The effect on headteachers
One of the claims behind the criticism of ‘well-meaning amateurs’ is that they allow headteachers to get too much of their own way. If you believe, as I do, that elected teacher governors will be the first casualties of any attempt to ‘reform’ governing bodies and that the people who may be destined to replace them and their community colleagues are as yet unknown, the effect on heads’ freedom of action must surely also be difficult to predict.

To tell you the truth I should actually be very worried about a situation in which headteachers could not get their own way until I had clear information about the qualifications and motivation of those who were stopping them. At least in the present assortment of elected representatives of the real stakeholders, heads know where we are coming from and to whom we owe our right to a voice. That provides some reassurance as well as some authenticity.

The jury principle
People who criticise popular forms of democracy as being inefficient, as the NASUWT has done, forget how deeply the representative process permeates our society. The involvement of ordinary citizens in many processes is the counterbalance to the power of wealth and qualifications which are often suspect.

Its ultimate expression is the jury and most people feel easier with this system than they would if guilt or innocence at these extremes were ultimately determined by the police or the lawyers or the captains of industry.

So let us be a lot more careful about talk of handing over the power of ‘amateurs’ to people of whom we know little, experts though they may be. The people who make a school a good school are its parents and its teachers and above all, of course, its head. They all have a right to be heard and so do the communities which pay for schools and benefit, or otherwise, from their quality.

As soon as you get outside that circle you are in the world of unknown motives and unchallengeable authority. Teachers above all would be the losers if governing bodies, these sometimes untidy sources of overview, experience and feelings, were replaced by unelected experts or money-changers whose motives were unknown.