Tags: Governors | School Governance | School Governor

How can governors overcome a perceived conflict between being united on the school’s behalf and representing distinct interest groups?

Recently I have become even more conscious of a particular anxiety among governors. It is about what they see as a conflict between being united on the school’s behalf but also elected or appointed to represent distinct interest groups with perhaps conflicting priorities. I think I know why this anxiety has grown. As we mature in our role we quite rightly develop a strong loyalty to the school, even identification with its well-being, and this sometimes sits uneasily with the priorities and opinions of the group who appointed or elected us.

The players

All public sector schools have governors elected by parents. All also have Local Authority nominees and elected staff members. Local Authority schools have community governors co-opted by the rest, while voluntary aided schools have appointed representatives of the church or other voluntary provider. The government in setting up the system clearly thought that all stakeholders in a school’s success should have a say and that school policies would somehow become a harmony of these interests, achieved by discussion and, where necessary, majority vote. It seems very simple but we know it isn’t always like that. The viewpoints are not easy to harmonise and may even be at times in sharp conflict. Hence we get twitchy about where loyalty lies and how to handle conflict.

  • Schools have between nine and 20 governors and, initially, governors themselves choose the size they favour.
  • The head, if he or she wishes, is a member ex officio.
  • Democratically elected parents and staff have obvious importance.
  • So do representatives of the Local Authority and likewise representatives of the providing church or other voluntary body in aided schools.
  • Most difficult perhaps is the role of community governors who in Local Authoriy schools are chosen by the rest.

Parent and staff representatives

Parents and staff are perhaps the governors who approach the job with the strongest personal feelings. Their stake in the school is obvious – for the staff, their careers and for the parents, the most precious thing they have, their children. Both are directly affected by almost every decision made and they regularly ask questions about how to discover the views of their groups and bring them to the table. They are also concerned about the extent to which they are delegates, with an obligation to pass on all opinions indiscriminately. Staff in particular worry about this, because the delegate role applies in their trade union affairs. Parents are very aware of the size and diversity of the group they speak for and anxious about how to listen to, sum up, report fairly and select from the opinions that reach them. The answer is that on governing bodies neither group has delegate status. Although they would be foolish not to report strongly held views, they vote in the end as their conscience dictates in the best interests of the school and the children but, of course, realising that it would be a serious matter to ignore conflicting views and desirable at least to report them. Staff can easily sound out opinion among colleagues. Parent governors have a much more difficult task, partly because, while like teachers they may hear conflicting opinions, they may find it harder to judge where the whole parent community stands on an issue. They will need to take particular care not to quote only the loudest voices or over-report self-interested groups who push the needs of the richest, the cleverest or otherwise advantaged. Indeed perhaps they should take extra care to speak for those who come to education burdened with disadvantage of any kind.

Local Authority and foundation governors

These are the providers of schools so carry special weight. In addition they represent in one case the community as paymaster and in the other the bodies, mostly churches, which founded the school and are the guardians of its ethos. But because of the power of the purse and the pulpit which they respectively carry, they need to be very careful not to be too dogmatic and must give space to other views, especially those of consumers in the form of parents and pupils of the school and the staff whose livelihood it is.

Community governors

This is the group which finds it hardest to see its constituency clearly because it is so diverse and varies so much in the accessibility of different views. They must be good listeners everywhere they go and try to represent any important group the school affects – businesses, employers, babies, the elderly, sick and disabled, the dog walkers and the shopkeepers, the garden lovers and the night workers. Even more important perhaps they must watch the interests of other schools established in that community which may be affected by the policies of the one they represent because, in a way, they speak for the fairness and consideration for others provided by the local education service as a whole. To sum up, the task of representing any group concerned with the running of schools must take account of:

  • the over-riding needs of a healthy local education service as a whole and all those affected by it;
  • the views of those to whom schools matter most – the parents and children served by them and the staff who work in them;
  • the ways in which the school must be a good neighbour, avoiding damage to the environment, to any categories of people whom its actions affect and to other local schools, considerate to neighbours of all kinds and recognising its broader obligation to enrich the life of the community as a whole.

This article first appeared in School Governor Update – Oct 2007

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