School governors. Representative or professional. Choose one.

Last week I spent a few hours floor-walking at a Fair Field parents’ evening, drumming up interest in our parent governor vacancies (I’m chair of govs and a parent myself). I love this bit of the job. You learn a huge amount and there are always surprises and insights. Thinking about it afterwards, the parents I spoke to fell into four groups:

  1. Instant enthusiasm. Done it before, already doing it somewhere else, definitely think about it.
  2. Curious. Aware of our existence, considered it before but never tried it. Might have a go.
  3. No idea. A handful of parents didn’t know we existed, thought we were some kind of external body or had no idea parents could be represented. Some communication to be done here, evidently (makes note). In this group, also, were parents from foreign education systems or with English as a second language.
  4. Most interesting group: parents who knew the governors existed, knew that parents were represented but had ruled themselves out: “left school too early”, “not good enough for that.”, “you wouldn’t want me” (actual quotes). One parent thought her dyslexia would rule her out. Included here are parents who think they don’t have time: “I’ve already got two jobs” was common, so was “I’m a single parent.” Difficult to argue with that, knowing how much time is needed.

We’ll get enough candidates to fill our two vacancies later this term and I hope this bit of outreach will have helped people understand what we do, who we are, why we exist.

There’s a tension here, though, which can only get worse, as the latest round of reforms takes effect. We want to broaden representation, get a wider range of stakeholders involved, make the governing body look a more like the parent body. But we also want to tighten things up, make things more professional, make our contribution more strategic, more effective. When filling governor vacancies, we instinctively want to recruit the kind of managers, lawyers and marketing people we’re going to need if we decide to go for academy status, for instance. And we want governors who need minimal support to get going, who know about how committees work and so on.

So can we do both? Can we bring in inexperienced governors who may lack confidence and the skills we need and hope they can make a strategic contribution? Or should we try to shamelessly target the people we need and worry a bit less about being representative? Either way, the current way of doing things doesn’t seem ideal: there are hundreds of thousands of governor vacancies in Britain and there’s a shortage of strategic skills almost everywhere. These are serious questions: Mr Gove wants governors to lift their game and Ofsted are paying more attention to governance than ever.

So could we try a different approach? If trying to be both representative and professional is too much, how about separating the two functions, concentrating on beefing up the strategic usefulness of the governors and handling the representation of parents and community differently? What if we set up an elected ‘parent panel’ of perhaps a dozen enthusiastic parents whose job would be to voice parents’ concerns, examine the governors’ decisions (and the school’s data) and bring the school’s leadership new ideas? (Google suggests that some schools already have parent panels…).

We’d still have to provide for the statutory representation of parents, of course, and our ‘panel’ couldn’t take on any of the legal responsibilities of governors but I think this approach might actually expand representation, make us more transparent and quite possibly improve our decisions. This is a half-baked idea, not a finished proposal. And I haven’t tested it with my fellow governors or with anyone else for that matter so I’d welcome your thoughts on this in the comments. Have you tried something like this? What have you learnt?

Shiny floor democracy

I expected little of the debates. I thought they’d slot into the campaign like all the other more-or-less artificial election media gewgaws and gimmicks: like party leaders going on kids TV or trying to skateboard or shear a sheep or whatever. I expected a slightly embarrassing, highly stage-managed performance. Something a bit cheesy and certainly not a source of information.

So, like everyone, I was surprised when the debates turned out to be:

A source of comparative information about the candidates and their positions. Honestly, we’re so accustomed to the idea that you can’t derive useful information from a politician’s raw discourse – that it’s all spin and that you have to pass it all through some kind of media-provided filter to get to the truth – that we all assumed the debates would be like that, only more so. And they weren’t. Something about the format, something about putting the three of them up against each other, something about hearing their statements together, seems to provide more genuine understanding. As a viewer, at the end of the first debate, I felt I’d been able to hold up and compare both the substance and the presentation of the three leaders’ positions in a way I’d never done before. Blimey.

A genuine alternative to a monstering from Paxman. The debates, in fact, seem to make the grillings dished out by Humphrys, Paxman, Boulton et al seem clumsy, unproductive, old-fashioned – just as Robin Day and his 1960s school of combative interrogation made the old, “anything to add, Minister?” deference seem old-fashioned in its day. If the three-way debate with its strict rules actually catches on, I think the broadcast bruisers are going to have to update their technique: being more systematic, less arbitrary, less keen on the sound of their own voices. This might yield an improvement in the heat:light ratio, if nothing else.

Real democratic events. Appointments with the democratic process, made voluntarily by unfeasibly large numbers of willing electors. In the three debates British electoral politics got its Dr Who moment – millions gathered round the TV, popcorn and beer at the ready. And if these media milestones are going to become regular occurances (a bit like Harry Hill’s fights). And if the whole electoral process is going to pivot on these shiny floor democratic events and the frenzy of concurrent chatter on the soc nets, then the shabby, stage-managed electoral communications of old (the pressers, the back-of-the-bus briefings, the clunky daily ‘narratives’) will have to be modernised sharply.

Genuinely Influential. Can you think of an election media event from your lifetime that has moved the polls and changed perceptions so sharply? Jennifer’s ear? The Sheffield Rally? Chicken feed: irrelevant by comparison (although I guess I ought to wait for the result…). The liberals are in the race in a way that no one could possibly have predicted. All bets are off.

Panic inducing for the media. Even from the outside, the last-days-of-Saigon hysteria in the newsrooms and boardrooms of some of Britain’s national papers after that first debate was obvious. For the election to run out of control, to jump the rails in the way it did would have been hard to bear in a good year but with the print media’s relevance already tumbling faster than ever it must have been a cruel few days for editors. The lucky few journalists who could boast a handful of top liberals in their speed-dials jumped in prestige over night and decades of deliberately ignoring the party began to look less wise for the others.

I don’t want to overstate this. An election result and a week or two of elapsed time will put the debates in their proper context. They might turn out to have been a gimmick after all. I honestly can’t wait to find out.