Governors: linking schools and communities

DSC02421 Serving as a school governor involves local people in how education is run and gives them a chance to share their expertise with staff. Peter Cheney asks two governors about what the role involves.

The role of boards of governors often goes unnoticed but their work provides a tangible link between schools and their communities and makes sure that parents, teachers and other local people have a voice in the running of a school.

Boards can vary between eight and 36 members and generally include:

  • foundation governors (churches and other interests which originally founded the school);
  • parent governors;
  • teacher governors; and
  • governors appointed by the education and library boards or the Department of Education, to represent the interests of the public and tax-payers.

Businesswoman Christine Harpur is a governor at Malone Integrated College, a grant-maintained integrated school. A board’s general priorities, she explains, are to provide the “best quality of education with the staff that you have” and the right working environment for the staff, and also to meet departmental targets.

Within Malone, the board looks at how to provide a good experience for all children in school. “In fact, at the beginning of this term, there were two young Somali boys who came into the school with very, very little English, very distressed that they could not communicate properly,” she comments. “So those children have to be looked after, support mechanisms have to be put into place, but also you have to make sure that you still maintain the standard and quality of education for the rest of the children.”

The board is also pressing for improved PE facilities. The current ones are outdated, meaning that the school has to bus children elsewhere. Staff want to capitalise on the Olympic legacy and also give children more opportunities to play together as part of integration.

Mrs Harpur enjoys being involved with the school’s life on a day-to-day basis and praises its staff as “exceptional”. The transformation process (from controlled to controlled integrated status) is “a more difficult environment” and “even with the best will in the world at the beginning, it takes time for it to develop.”

The most difficult part of the job is dealing with exclusion cases. In one case, she recalls: “The parents and the grandparents were devastated at the thought of the child being expelled but they were going to find a place for this young person at one of the special units, after which there was the possibility that they would come back again if their behaviour improved. Sometimes, that is the making of them and in fact it was in that particular case.”

Dealing with potential staff redundancies is another hard part, although she is prepared for this after a long career in human resources: “Clearly, there’s a process of negotiation but there’s also a process of looking at people who might be interested in voluntary redundancy, reducing hours, doing all sorts of things like that.”

Ethos

Governors in Catholic maintained schools have an extra responsibility to maintain the school’s ethos and oversee the development of the faith. Sean McArdle, previously Regional Director of First Trust Bank, chairs the board of governors at St Anne’s Primary School, Dunmurry.

The school is Northern Ireland’s largest primary with 91 staff and 860 pupils. The principal, Michael Keenan, and the chair have a “very strong working relationship”.

“For me, the most enjoyable part is the craic that goes on between us in that none of us take ourselves too seriously,” Mr McArdle comments. “We take what we do very seriously but we enjoy a fair amount of banter.”

Mr Keenan values the insights that governors can bring from finance and other areas of business. He adds: “We have very challenging governors and they will ask: ‘Why, and where are you going and what are the implications?’ But I know that when I come out of a governors’ meeting with people saying go for that or we’ll support you, it’s well talked through and well thought through.”

St Anne’s governors list their priorities as, firstly, the safety and welfare of children (on a large site with two sets of buildings) and, secondly, ensuring that children are educated properly, so they can move on to post-primary education.

Furthermore, the school has made sure that it builds up links with controlled schools. “That’s important for us, for a very normal reason,” Mr McArdle comments. “We want our youngsters to meet other youngsters from other schools in the street … and that they won’t be suspicious of them. And if it prevents one argument or one row, then it’s worth it.”

The school runs a programme with Finaghy and Strandtown primary schools e.g. cross-community sporting events with pupils from different schools in each team. Hunterhouse College and Rathmore Grammar School provide sporting facilities for St Anne’s and their pupils also come in to work with the children.

Two feasibility studies have identified the need for a new school and the board will keep lobbying the department for that investment.

Governors, in the principal’s view, often underestimate the impact they have on a school e.g. in a “very strong” teaching appointment and “the influence that has on hundreds of children literally, from one year to the next.”

Good financial management also helps the school to properly resource its classes. In turn, Mr McArdle says that the board’s job is “very easy if the school is managed well” by the principal. Boards bring together the voices of parents, teachers and the parish i.e. “that’s really who’s supposed to be working together for the benefit of the child.”

Disciplinary issues are tough to deal with and Mr McArdle admits to being frustrated with the slow speed of action in education.

“If something needs to be done in business, you do it, you don’t hang around. In the world of schooling, it’s different. There’s a whole series of people to be consulted and talked to and the rest of it. And in a lot of cases, the decision is clear in your head as to what needs to be done but it could take years for them to do it.”

This has been a good insight for Mr Keenan. “Whilst people have the best will in the world, and I don’t doubt that,” he says, “very often there’s a bureaucracy and a level of red tape that just impacts on where, sometimes, we would want to go.”

He also recognises that governors, who are all voluntary, are being given an increasing level of responsibility and is concerned in the long run, this may put people off. “And yet,” he states, “we couldn’t do what we do as a staff for the children without the support of governors.”

New governors always welcome

The Department of Education wants “enthusiastic and committed” people from all walks of life to consider becoming school governors. Exact statistics for this year are not yet available but there are an estimated 10,000 governors serving in 11,000 posts across the province. “Many governors find this a challenging yet rewarding role which enables them to make a contribution to the community, children and young people,” a spokeswoman told agendaNi. “Boards of governors are reconstituted every four years although new applications are welcome anytime to fill vacancies that arise due to mid-term resignations.” Application forms are available at www.deni.gov.uk/schools-and-infrastructure/schools-management

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