Too many school governors just don’t put the effort in
"Can we make these reports a bit shorter? I didn't read it."
Carol, a recent addition to our governing board, peered expectantly at the chair while the rest of us looked something between aghast and infuriated.
The chair faltered in surprise while Mr Frank, the careers advice lead – who had spent hours of his own time writing the report, on extra duties he's barely given any time to do – looked crestfallen.
Carol continued to eyeball the chair, as if her question was perfectly reasonable, unaware (or perhaps not bothered) about the offence she had caused – to the person who had written the report or those of us who had given up our time to read, understand, annotate and prepare questions on it.
"I mean, there's just so much to read, I didn't get through it all," she continued, looking over her glasses and down her nose.
Finally, the chair rallied. "There wasn't too much this time," he said, while we murmured our assent and shuffled our papers in awkward anger. "We have been guilty of sharing too much paperwork in the past, but we have worked hard to trim right back and this is the absolute minimum you can expect."
I wanted Carol to be embarrassed or apologetic. Instead, she shrugged her shoulders and told us all to "carry on then". Except we couldn't. Her admission that she had failed to read the report, meant the chair had to push back the agenda item to the next meeting.
I sat there – tired, on an uncomfortable chair in a cold library, heading into hour two of the meeting after a full day at work (made doubly manic because I had to leave early to make it here) – and fumed. It wasn't just that poor Mr Frank would have to give up yet another evening to come and talk us through his report, or that we would all have to add it to the pile of things to read (again); it also showed an an utter lack of respect for the role.
I'll be honest: there have been times, over my years as a governor, when a pile of papers has arrived through the door and I just haven't made it through them. I've been held back by disasters at work and nasty bouts of sickness tearing through the family. But here's the thing – I have every intention of doing it and most of the time I have read (although, not always understood) what is sent. And if I haven't got through it, I've admitted it as soon possible with a good dose of grovelling (a distant cry from Carol's expectation for us to change the system for her).
I can't say the same for Carol. She's never late, oh no, she's always first to make a cup of tea, fill a polystyrene plate with sandwiches and bag a slice of cake before it runs out. When it comes to the work, though, she's less on it.
The only time she contributes is during staff presentations (the bit of the meeting you can't do any prep for). She asks irrelevant questions and goes off on unhelpful tangents with such regularity that the chair has now taken to giving her a time limit because otherwise we get sidetracked by her intellectual superiority.
For the rest of the meetings, she mostly just shuffles papers. It's incredible – 15 minutes into a discussion on absence data she can break out into a series of sifting, stacking and arranging. I can only imagine three reasons for this: she thinks the discussion should end and is trying to give the chair a not-so-subtle signal; she's stopped concentrating on what is being said; she was never on the right page in the first place.
I don't want to be too harsh. I know how tough it is when you're new to school governance. The training isn't great and you spend many meetings feeling as though you're out of your depth. The people at the table can be daunting too – it feels like they know so much and you will never keep up. And, finally, let's face it, this isn't your job and you aren't getting paid for the hours spent pouring over unfathomable Raiseonline data.
My problem with Carol is that there's nothing humble about her – just bravado and superiority. And what makes that even worse is she isn't the first governor I've met who walks around like they own the school without putting any effort into governing it.
An old board member Alfred had been there years and was a Dumbledore-like figure in the school. But he often turned up to meetings with his envelope of papers still sealed and was seriously rusty on policy. Craig, a passionate parent governor, only turned when he had a playground complaint to bring up (despite numerous chats, emails and training about the role of parent governors). And then there was Paul – he just sat there quietly and nodded. I think we said hello, but that was about it.
But otherwise we have a group of people doing an amazing job. While the likes of Carol, Alfred and Paul have left me livid, there have been numerous others whose skills, knowledge and dedication leave me in awe and awfully thankful. Thing is, at a time of tough budgets, constant policy changes and an increasingly fragmented schools system, strong governance has never been so important. I can't help but worry about the school governors who are letting down themselves, their schools and, worst of all, their pupils down because they aren't putting the work in.