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:
- Instant enthusiasm. Done it before, already doing it somewhere else, definitely think about it.
- Curious. Aware of our existence, considered it before but never tried it. Might have a go.
- 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.
- 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?