The wake of the ‘Trojan Horse’ case – or the reporting thereof – is positively littered with issues: academies’ curricular freedoms; ideologues vs pragmatists; Islamophobia; Ofsted’s political independence (get your microscope out for that, if you can find one strong enough). More…and more… rhubarb. All, rheums included, have been picked over and the lumps set aside for further analysis. I do something similar with the Catsan when my furry overlord has a dicky tum – a bit of post-hoc crapomancy to minimise future bouts of the runs.
Among the areas under discussion is the role of governors. Though not a flashy headline-grabber, like intra-Cabinet fisticuffs, it nonetheless offers political pundits food for thought and fulmination (although not always in that order). What are the responsibilities of governing bodies, and do they change when local authorities are no longer in control? Are governors exercising their powers appropriately? Is specific training needed? With typically self-obsessed myopia, I’m tipping my governor-shaped hat towards my last post and a few before.
In the early days, I wasn’t really conscious of governors; truth to tell, I wasn’t really conscious. They were occasionally present on interview panels and at staff meetings but, leaving aside the teacher governors, I couldn’t name most of them. Apart from Angela Rumbold (yes, THAT Angela Rumbold), who may not have been on my side of the fence, politically, but who could say to chutzpah-rich and research-poor parents, “I’m afraid that’s not the national policy. I should know: I wrote it”. Some of my ex-colleagues still can’t name their governors because their head teachers actively discourage or, even, prevent them from speaking to each other.
Did this void in my knowledge feel like the gnaw of hunger? Not really. And maybe that’s because my colleagues and I had less reason back then to wonder “Why the hell aren’t the governors keeping track of X, Y or Z?” In more recent times, it’s a question I’ve asked and heard with far greater frequency. Mostly, it’s delivered with rational, if sad, calm. A few times, I’ve heard it squeezed through the teeth, the resulting sibilance an eloquent expression of barely-contained apoplexy. Sometimes, it’s erupted through gathering stormclouds of milky spittle. Whatever the mode of delivery, all are at best ambivalent about the curbing of governors’ powers towards which much of the ‘Trojan Horse’ fallout seems to point. Today, Muslims; tomorrow, the rest.
Useless governors can be a force for ill. Many of us have encountered at least one of them: those who see the role as CV-enhancing, and who give themselves away by asking things like “Which school is this, again?”; Or the parent governors hoping to wangle some special privileges for their offspring. How about the teacher governors for whom a brown nose is a timeless classic, in vogue every season? In their cupped hands, the concept of the governor as a critical friend lies panting in the foetal position, slowly turning blue. Well, the ‘critical’ part, anyway. The ‘friend’ bit is in rude health, being wined and dined by the head teacher just before his or her pay review.
Others, similarly toothless, have abdicated their interrogative responsibilities out of fear, with parent and teacher governors being especially susceptible. Fail to go along with the head teacher’s latest big idea and watch curricular opportunities and professional prospects evaporate. If this sounds familiar, here’s a thought: don’t apply for the job if you have the disposition of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and count “Zoinks” among your most frequent utterances. Others are under the erroneous impression that it’s their job to say “Yes” and “Brilliant” to the head’s every ‘initiative’, demonstrating their commitment by having rubber stamps grafted onto their palms.
Some, however, are bloody brilliant. They understand that a school’s strategic direction should be a collective decision; that the bedfellow of scrutiny is trust; that the well-being of the students is enhanced by taking staff welfare seriously. And, vitally, that ‘critical friend’ is not an oxymoron but, rather, a necessary and logical yoking, without which everyone – not least, the head teacher who is the intended object of said critique – suffers. And therein lies the crux of the matter for me: the expanding range of powers being gifted to school principals. When a governing body is ineffective, these can be – too frequently, are – abused with near-impunity.
I’m not going to drag out the sordid litany of head-teacherly dodginess again. Oh okay, just the once: misuse of capability proceedings; conflicts of interest; embezzlement; bullying; cheating. All of these, and more, have happened under the noses of governors in my more recent places of employment, because they were either too credulous to realise that they were being fed highly redacted versions of events, or because they had forgotten that it’s their job to hold the head to account – not the other way around. The departure of staff is natural in schools; but when the flow becomes pathological, like septic oozings from an untended wound, governors need to recognise, and act upon, it.
I place a particular onus on the shoulders of community governors who, having the least squit-inducing vested interests, should ensure that those of their fellow board members are kept in check. Having just witnessed the resignation of a headteacher whose crimes (really) and misdemeanours stretch back over years, I’m struck by how many of the governors who had come, gone and, in some cases, come back knew about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of a parlous situation. But, with politeness and fear being the principal lubricants of our current system, they said and did nothing. It was the arrival of a community governor in the chair’s, um, chair, that put an end to the reign of terror and stemmed the flow of staff resignations this year – especially the ones for unspecified ‘personal reasons’.
Governors can bring valuable expertise to supplement that already in a school, using their skills and contacts to provide students with opportunities they would not have otherwise. There are those who turn their talents to generating funds and helping to manage budgets intelligently, cautioning against oscillations between penny-wisdom and pound-foolishness. In several schools I know, governors’ technical savvy is reflected in the design and management of fantastic websites. All are to be applauded for their commitment and creativity.
Still, whenever possible, governors should also be in school – accompanying students on trips, helping out with reading recovery, making themselves identifiable presences. Because so many do not come from the teaching profession themselves, some amount of training in the exercise of oversight may be required, although we need to be careful to avoid turning this into another form of state licensing: look at where the NPQH has got us, with its implicit policy of selecting and unleashing all manner of sociopathy on unsuspecting schools. But a cogent programme of preparation and research – something involving regular dialogue with staff and parents – would enable governors to discharge their duties more actively and effectively.
Let’s not allow the coverage of the Birmingham schools to tie governors’ hands too tightly. Because, while we’ve occasionally been damned with them, we’ll certainly be damned without them.