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Killing off parent governors isn’t necessarily going to make school governance more professional

Image credit: Leader lock by Sarah Joy - licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Killing off parent governors isn’t necessarily going to make school governance more professional

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Penny RabigerPenny Rabiger currently works with Challenge Partners and was an English teacher for 10 years before becoming a director at The Key. This guest post is reproduced with permission from its original publication on her blog, with the Questions for governing boards added by Modern Governor. You can contact and follow Penny on Twitter at @Penny_Ten.

Is being a parent ‘enough’?

Nicky Morgan recently declared that being a parent is not enough to be a governor. This was following the announcement that parent governors are to be dropped from all school governing bodies in favour of professionals with the “right skills”.

Having been a parent governor for 6 years I must say that I agree that it is not enough to be a parent if you want to benefit a school governing body. You need relevant skills and you need time. You also need a commitment to spend time constantly updating and honing your skills so they are relevant and useful to the school you wish to support. In fact, I would say this is the most critical aspect of being any kind of governor. And it is the probably the area where many governing bodies are completely lacking. But as a parent governor, you need a level of mental agility and brutal self-reflection that, in my experience, most people just don’t possess and don’t know is necessary.

What’s my motivation?

It would be fair to say that many parents want to become school governors for two reasons: they want to give something back to the school which their child attends; and they want to have some kind of influence over the direction of the school so that their child (and of course other children) will get the best education they can. This has been loosely referred to as supporting and challenging the school. But it is very telling that although they are meant to be looking out for the interests of all children at the school, a parent’s interest is naturally very personal to their own child’s daily life at the school and will usually end as their child leaves the school. To prove my point I can say that I sat through countless governing body meetings where parent governors pushed their own agendas, referred to their own children by name in the meetings time and again with comments such as “but my A__ loves the school meals/is always saying they are not allowed to drink in class” or “I know that L__ always complains that other children are holding him back when he is so bright/wouldn’t want there to be more play equipment in the playground as he likes the space for football”.

Parent governors are meant to be representatives from the parent body and not representatives of the parent body and this also seems to encourage the myopic view of the world through one’s own experience. I personally found it really difficult to get a view on what every segment of the school population was experiencing, needed, or would benefit from, especially since we, the governing body, were a pretty uniform bunch of predominantly white, middle-class professionals and most of us were parents. (The school had a habit of simply bumping people over from parent governor to community governor when their term ran out, so long as their child was still at the school. This meant that around two-thirds of the governing body were parents at one point.)

Brutal self-reflection is necessary

This is where the mental agility and brutal self-reflection comes in to play. If you are not able to constantly question yourself, your motives and interests as a governor, and most especially as a parent governor (and as a staff governor, another role on the governing body that requires a zen-like level of self-awareness and mental gymnastics), you are almost certainly doing the school a disservice. If you are not committed to ensuring that the school gets the best of what you have to offer as a governor by attending training, reading a lot, staying up to speed with changes in legislation and demands, being part of an online community via Twitter such as #UKGovChat you should not be a governor at all. This is confusing, and it will probably annoy some people that I say this, because the defence against pushing governors that I always heard is that they are volunteers and are giving their professional skills, for which they would usually be paid pretty handsomely, for free. Bums on seats, be grateful and all that. It must be noted too that while London schools are inundated, there are schools where it is nearly impossible to get a full set of governors either from the parent body or from members of the local community. There just aren’t many people that fit the bill or who can afford the time. Only last year the DfE gave £1m to help schools recruit high-calibre governors and SGOSS will tell you that if you are from London, you will wait for months to find a governing body to join, where in other areas of the country it’s impossible to fill places.

I think that some of the rationale for abandoning the system of elected parent governors in favour of searching for people with the relevant professional skills (whatever those may be exactly) is to avoid a situation where being a parent is the only contribution you have to the school. We shouldn’t forget that the PTA is a good place for people with and without so-called professional skills, who can use their motivation, time and passion to have a massive positive and very visible impact on the school.

Skills first?

One of the things I tried to insist we adopted at the school where I was a governor was a skills-based approach. I wanted to force us to consider what these “professional skills” were that the school needed. If we don’t want to be looking for people who are just replicas of ourselves and therefore assume they are the right people, we need to clearly define what the skills are we need. I requested that we carry out a skills and knowledge audit and that we then matched the existing people we had already on the governing body with relevant courses, reading materials and resources to ensure that they had the basic skills we had decided were essential. We should also make sure the right people are on the right committees within the governing body too. Where we still had gaps, we could search for the right people to fill those knowledge and skills gaps. Based on the skills and knowledge audit, how important would it be to know if governors had not seen the school development plan, or were not clear how the governing body’s activities fit into this? How telling would it be if we discovered that our Chair of governors had not attended any training on being a Chair or didn’t the fill out the skills audit at all? How useful would it be to know that most people had not attended the LA induction and that there was no school-based induction? I have written about the importance of induction and orientation in a previous post. Furthermore, isn’t it right that any self-evaluation, challenge and support should start with the governing body’s own fitness for purpose?

My point is that I agree that being a parent isn’t enough but killing off parent governors isn’t necessarily going to make school governance more professional. Having a governing body made up of only professional people isn’t enough either. To be a governor these days, you really have to know your stuff and that includes being aware of just how much you don’t know. You have to start with the basics of being clear on why you want to do it, and you have to commit yourself to constantly honing your knowledge and making it clear where you can add value to the governing body as a whole for the benefit of the school, and according to the priorities set out in the school development plan. Times are rapidly changing. This is no mean feat.

Questions for governing boards
  • How do we ensure that, under the current model of governance, parent & staff governors are representative of their groups?
  • Do we have robust ways to ensure that personal agendas (those of any governor, not solely parents & staff governors) are managed & resisted?
  • With the implications of the White Paper looming, what skills will we need to help us prepare the school for the changes ahead?
  • If we have previouly done a skills audit, did we see this as a one-off activity before reconstitution, or is such an activity revisited as part of a cycle of improvement?
  • What resources do we know of which are available to help us determine our own fitness for purpose?
  • Many effective chairs, vice-chairs & other vital governors started off as parent governors. How can we (can we?) ensure that this potential is not missed in the current climate?

Image credit: Leader lock by Sarah Joy – licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


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2 Comments
  • Claire
    Posted at 14:15h, 11 April Reply

    Thank you, Penny, I couldn’t have put it better myself. I started life as a parent governor and our school sounds very similar to your own in terms of the make up of the governing body. There have definitely been those parents over the years who have been unable to separate their personal agenda from that of the school and GB, and also the individuals from the parent community who view their friend, who happens to be a governor, as their personal channel to vent opinions and complaints about the school. I am really pleased that you have mentioned staff governors and how difficult this role can be. Balancing the participation in debate with the knowledge that your boss – the head – is in the room can be tough.
    I agree that it is vital to have a balance of skills and personnel on a governing body, and that there are many professional, skilled people, who also happen to be parents, who are a an asset. The time factor is definitely something that we may not anticipate when we become a governor – the educational landscape shifts so rapidly and the expectation is that a strategic governing body must be up to speed. Thus the individual governor must be prepared to train and network beyond the confines of one school, and spend the necessary time upon that one school. Obviously this applies to all governors, whatever their “status”.
    My governing body is now in a good place – we work strategically and I believe use our individual strengths and weaknesses collectively to strengthen the whole. But it has not happened overnight, and at the end of the year we will have several vacancies. Will we be able to fill these easily? This remains to be seen, but our current GB would be in a very different place if it were not for some excellent volunteer governors – some of whom happen to be parents past and present.

  • Guy Davies
    Posted at 16:12h, 11 April Reply

    Part of the problem here is that no one seems to have explained to parents (or others?) joining the board what they were meant to do and how they were meant to do it. Good induction and and insistence on new gov training would help sort that out. And a strong chair who insisted that colleagues conduct themselves as a team of strategic leaders, not a bunch of operational moaners.

    We use this induction aid:

    http://matraversgovernor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/governance-guide-for-perplexed.html

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