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Heads run schools — not governors

07 June 2013

Sir Michael Wilshaw's suggestion that some school governors should be paid is ill thought out, says Dennis Richards

THE Two Ronnies entertained the nation for many years. Now it is the turn of the Two Michaels to do the same for the nation's schools.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has been a familiar figure on the staffroom dartboard for some time, but he is fast being matched by his sidekick, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. "Are you taking the Michael, Headmaster?" has taken on a whole new meaning in staff meetings.

Sir Michael has left teacher-bashing to the other Michael, and turned his attention to the nation's school governors. Perhaps he has heard the one about the governor who saw D.Phil. on a candidate's application, and greeted him with a cheery: "Hi, Phil, how are you doing?" as he came in for interview.

He has bemoaned the poor quality of school governance, and made it the latest OFSTED sword-of-Damocles threat for school inspections.

Apparently, governors have now to move on from the obsession with safety- and risk-assessment. For a short while, OFSTED prided itself on failing a school even before an inspection had started, if safety procedures were judged "inadeqate". Governors measured the height of the fences, checked the locks, and made sure that the floors were not slippery.

Gaining entry into the school involved bell-ringing, form-filling, tapping in a code, and wearing the correct lanyard. Anecdotal it may be, but the thought of a school gleefully turning away an OFSTED team because it failed the accreditation test at the school gate is too delicious not to be true. 

IN A recent speech, Sir Michael, incredibly, has not just shifted the OFSTED focus from health and safety: he has now had a pop at school lunches as well. He condemned governing bodies for paying too much attention to "marginal" concerns - "too much time spent looking at the quality of school lunches, and not enough on maths and English".

This is a Grand Old Duke of York management style. Having marched us up to the top of the hill of culinary splendour, at the cost of thousands of pounds, and having urged us to fight the good fight against chips and turkey twizzlers, we now find ourselves rapidly in retreat.

Speaking of dukes, I recall Prince Philip visiting our school catering display at the local showground, suspiciously eyeing our aubergine tartlets and vegetarian quiche. "What's wrong with bangers and mash? Chaps need proper food." HRH clearly knew more than he let on, although I confess I had never previously thought of the amiable Duke as being in the vanguard of educational thinking.

Sir Michael came up with a classic back-of-the-envelope proposal to rectify what he saw as the problem of poor governance. Popularly known as B of E thinking, such intiatives are usually shortlived at best, and, at worst, never get off the ground. His idea of paying governors in certain schools for their contribution prompts several questions. Who would pay? How would they be recruited? What would such a proposal mean for the crucial relationship between the head teacher and the chair?

If a chair of governors exceeds his or her brief, life quickly becomes intolerable for the head. If both are being paid, the demarcation line will be increasingly blurred.

SOME years ago, a governor came to meetings at the school where I was the head, and promptly fell asleep, waking only to remark "I support the head teacher on this" - whatever the "this" was. I always felt that he was the ideal governor. He would not get away with that now, but at least everyone knew who the head was, and where the buck stopped.

The head runs the school, and, while governors monitor every aspect of the school's performance, they must not exceed their brief. Nightmares abound. Chairing a governing body is a whole new ball-game. The rules are supposedly clear: the same questions for every candidate; nothing that could put in doubt our commitment to equal opportunities; scores out of ten for each category.

Towards the end of the first candidate's interview in a rural North Yorkshire primary school, a governor takes it upon himself to ask the candidate: "Do you like cows?" To our consternation, we realise that all the candidates must now be asked the same question. A series of bemused applicants pass before our eyes, and answers range from a touching defence of vegetarianism to one candidate's offer to give us the details of a "cracking steak-house in Leeds, serving the best beefburger in the north of England".

In the summing up, it is noted that the foundation governors have given the rather bohemian-looking candidate zero for professional appearance; the staff governors have given him ten; and the parent governor has given him five, on the grounds that "my boy will like him, but my daughter will find him a bit scary".

The young woman with the film-star appearance similarly divides the panel, although this time on gender lines. Another governor has reluctantly dropped the "Are you thinking of starting a family?" line of enquiry. 

ANOTHER B of E idea for governors was proposed some years ago by the then government - an annual report, to be followed by an annual meeting. We quickly reached the position that only a small number of parents chose to attend such meetings; and the death knell sounded the moment that one head teacher claimed that the small number of attenders at his school meant that his school was extremely successful. When no one turned up at a neighbouring school the next year, the head teacher claimed that, by that logic, he was running the most successful school in the country. The idea was quietly dropped.

The word is that Sir Michael now qualifies for a free bus-pass. If he is looking for a nice little earner as a paid governor, as he approaches retirement, I suspect that he will be kept waiting a while - until the cows come home, as you might say.

Dennis Richards is a former headmaster of St Aidan's C of E High School, Harrogate.

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