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July 26, 2005

On being a school governor

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs shares his experiences of being a school governor: deciphering official jargon, school visits, and the impact of Jamie Oliver. He also wonders - as is the case of the school in Hammersmith & Fulham of which Harry Phibbs is a governor - whether anyone actually believes that 29% of expenditure per pupil is better spent in the Town Hall than in the individual school?

There is no money and little status in becoming a school governor. Often schools have vacancies and public spirited individuals, finding themselves with some spare time, who write to their local council offering their services find the are usually co-opted on to the board of a local school pretty quickly. Then there are also the teacher governors - including the head, of course, whose report to each school governors' meeting is usually the main item on the agenda. There are parent governors, usually elected unopposed at the annual parents meeting. Usually it will be a parent who has been persuaded to stand after helping out with some school activity - no good deed goes unpunished.

For all this school governors offer a useful counterblast of reality in state schools. While headmasters will be ground down by forms and courses filled with official jargon expounding all the latest trendy theories, the school governor will ask, as politely and deferentially as possible: "What does that mean?" The very discipline of having to put the official pronouncements back into English instils in the headmaster a sense of reality.

School governors are entitled, indeed encouraged, to visit the school once a term or so. They also have a chance to report on their visit. I once caused consternation at a primary school in St John's Wood where I was a governor a few years ago. Reporting on a visit I had made to the school, I named a Bosnian child who had recently arrived at the school. He was unable to speak English but was very good at sums. Essentially his entire time at school was being wasted. For most lessons he stared blankly unable to understand what was going on. In the maths lesson however he managed to correctly complete a whole sheet of sums within seconds which kept the rest of the class going for the whole lesson. Of course he should have been given harder sums and special help to learn English. "We are letting him down", I declared. Later it was proposed by one of the teachers that reports of governor's visits should be restricted to general comments as it was "inappropriate" to make comments which should be made by school inspectors.

But I was backed up by the other governors who agreed there was little point in having school visits if specific criticisms could not be made. I never found out if the boy was given harder sums to add up.

Sometimes one sees the impact of national events at an individual school. Jamie Oliver's TV series has thankfully raised parental awareness about school dinners. It has been interesting to see the effects on the ground. The school menu directed by Hammersmith and Fulham Council was unbalanced - including for instance pasta and potatoes in the same meal. But the school has now managed to take control of its own menu and is now much healthier and also more appetising. Chips are now down to one day a week - fish and chips on Fridays. On other days there are jacket potatoes, pitta bread, garlic bread or tortilla wraps. Puddings are healthier with more fruit and smoothies have been brought in. Parents have been involved with the chance to come in and sample what is on offer. They should be confident about the meals on offer in the school rather than feeling it is necessary to provide a packed lunch and thus denying their children a hot meal at lunch time. The improvement has been a victory for Parent Power rather than Governor Power - but the presence of parent governors means the two overlap.

Despite the vast sums being spent on education often individual schools struggle to make ends meet. School governors are roped in to help with various fund raising events such as school fetes so that schools have enough money to pay for books. A look at the accounts brings home what a remarkably small share of the education budget filters down to the individual schools.

When the school's annual report was produced I looked at the total budget. Divided by the number of pupils it worked out at 3,741 per pupil. Then I made enquiries with Hammersmith and Fulham Council and eventually I discovered that 5,274 is spent in the borough per pupil.

Does anybody really believe that 1,533 per pupil - or 29% of the total expenditure - is better spent by the Town Hall than it would be by the individual schools? The system is like a leaking hose. The tap of taxpayers money is turned on full, a whole lot is spent by central government, the rest is passed down to Hammersmith and Fulham Council who spend a whole lot more and then the rest trickles down to the schools. If the Council feel they are providing such efficient and useful services to schools then let the schools decide. Give them the money and let them choose if they want to spend it on more teachers, books and safety improvements. Or if they want to, they can hand it back to the Town Hall in return for sending teachers and governors off to a lot of politically correct conferences to spout the latest educational jargon.

One final irony about my role. I am an LEA governor, a political appointee. If I had my way LEA governors would be abolished along with the LEAs themselves.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Well, perhaps the job's changed since I did it for a little while (as a LEA governor) in north London in the 70s and 80s.

But I doubt that here in Westminster public spirited individuals, finding themselves with some spare time, who write to their local council offering their services find the are usually co-opted on to the board of a local school pretty quickly - I'd be astonished if Party cards weren't still on the person specification. (And if they didn't do their damnedest to get "sound" people elected to parent governorships, too.)

Perhaps the Editor would like to find a Head to write an article explaining why he (it's bound to be "he" on this board) could get on so much faster without Governors, LEAs, and even the Secretary of State...

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at July 27, 2005 12:40 PM

I see that Brian Micklethwait over at Samizdata says of Harry Phibbs - in praising this piece - that "Harry Phibbs is one of those people who is not nearly as much of an ass as he often pretends to be. In fact, often pretending to be an ass is just about the only assinine thing about him."
Very droll - having met the man many times I couldn't agree more - although he does give a very good impression of being an ass. Come to think of it, no-one could be as much of an ass as Mr Phibbs pretends to be. Not meant as a jibe - again I agree with Micklethwait: Phibbs is a very good writer.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 27, 2005 02:22 PM
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