Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 145-159)




  145. Can I say what a pleasure it is to have representatives of the governors of Birmingham schools with us this evening and I welcome Monica, Roy and Fran. We hold these meetings in relative informality but they are very formal in the sense that we are pleased to have our shorthand writer with us. She will be transcribing all these evidence sessions and every comment you make will be published. Normally I would say you are on television but when we take evidence outside Parliament we do not have the opportunity of having it on television. It is very rare that we do this on the road, if you like, and we are so delighted to be here in Birmingham for a full week to try to understand what, for this largest local education authority in the land (but one that is much improved), are the tasks, the challenges, the achievements. We really want you to be frank about the education service. We do not want to hear a rosy story. We do not want to hear all complaint. We want you to tell us how it is in Birmingham here you stand as governors. Can I ask you if you want to make a brief introduction? Who wants to lead?
  (Mrs Coke) I will start by saying who I am and the school that I represent at the moment. As the nameplate says, I am Monica Coke and I am a governor at Harborne Hill School. I have been a governor there for about 18 months now. I started about the same time as the new headteacher. I am also the Vice Chair of Birmingham Governors' Forum. I am one of the founding members of setting up a Birmingham Governors' Forum and that came about because my colleague on my right, Fran, and I were a little bit dissatisfied that governors were being done to as opposed to being part of the process that works together with Government or with the local authority in looking at what the needs are, at our young people in schools and about raising the achievement targets and attainment of our young people in schools. We felt that if governors were being given a lot of power but were not actually being part of the process to agree those powers then we wanted to have a forum where we could debate those issues and get the views of our other colleagues on the ground. We are not paid to do the job and it just seemed as though we were being put upon even more and more in what we had to do and the power was very onerous but we were not actually being part of that decision-making, that is to say, we feel that that is something we feel ought to be part of our remit. I have been a school governor for 14 or 15 years now. I have been a governor at primary school and now at Harborne Hill. I was asked to join the governing body there because they were under special measures and they needed some experienced governors to help them move the school forward. The school is just outside the city centre. It has a high population of students from Asian, African-Caribbean, Russian and other minority ethnic groupings. It has a high mobility rate. It was troubled with under-achievement and also not enough students in the school. Thankfully, the closing of Cardinal Newman School has helped raise the roll. At the moment we are at 521 which is helping the school somewhat. There is a deficit budget there still but all of the governors are working hard with the headteacher and the rest of the staff to turn round the school. The last OFSTED report, which was done in October 2001, has given us a marked improvement on where it started from when we got there. The school is improving but there are lots of issues there which I am sure we will come to.

  146. Thank you very much for that introduction.
  (Mrs Stevens) I am a governor at two schools in the city. I was a governor at Washwood Heath School but things have recently changed there, so that is no longer so. I am Chair of Birmingham Governors' Forum. As governors sitting on the Executive we are very proud of a number of achievements within our schools in Birmingham and we can see that there has been a raising of standards. However, we are very aware that there is still a number of challenges that we have to deal with, transition being one of those challenges for us.

  147. Transition at 11?
  (Mrs Stevens) Transition from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 where the schools have not merged, but on the whole I think the main issues now are probably from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3. Governors are asking questions as to, does the curriculum that we have suit our youngsters, or are we giving a curriculum that ensures that all our children can reach their full potential? We worry that there is too much emphasis on just raising of standards and academic achievement and not looking at the skills that youngsters need to equip them for lifelong learning and going into the world of education. Those are some of the things that concern us. We are also concerned about recognising the need to do further work with parents and the community. It is essential that we start to listen to community, that if we are going to have sustainable communities schools should be at the heart of those. In order to make them sustainable governors feel that the voices of the parents and the people in those communities should be listened to. We think we have some challenges there and some way to go if we want to have a city that we are all working and living in and doing things together in. Those are the biggest challenges as I see them that we need to work on.
  (Mr Gillard) I am a governor of Birmingham's largest all-girls' secondary school, Swanshurst, which is less than four miles from the city centre and, with around 60 per cent ethnic students, it is also the largest girls' school in Europe. I am delighted to say that it is a beacon school with a first class record and reputation. Currently we are seeking specialist status as a science college and are optimistic that we will succeed. At this point I would like to take us down a single issue route, and all single issues are inclined to be neglected. This affects secondary schools throughout Birmingham and throughout the land in terms of seeking specialist status. At Swanshurst it has given the governors and headteachers some concern about the enormous amount of time that has had to be put in to raise the 50,000 sponsorship necessary to make the bid. As far as the bid itself is concerned we have not got the status yet but there does not appear to be a real problem. We are optimistic, as I said. But despite having excellent relations with business and industry in our local community and knowing that the purpose of the 50,000 sponsorship is to improve that, we have found it very difficult within the economic situation for business and industry as it is now, and raising the money is proving a mammoth task, although it does look as if we will succeed. It is particularly difficult when the sponsorship rules eliminate any contribution from companies which have any existing commercial links with the school. It seems rather ridiculous. The bottom line is that a huge number of teaching hours have had to be put in by senior staff to raise the money. In fact, it was virtually a full time job for one of our deputy heads for about two months, amounting to something like 200 teaching hours. We have staff that are very good at teaching and running a huge school. That is for what they have been trained. They have not been trained in fund raising, nor should they need to be.

  148. We have heard that from many quarters since we have been in Birmingham and before we came to Birmingham we were aware of that problem, and I can assure you that the Committee takes that very seriously indeed.
  (Mr Gillard) One would hope that action would be taken.

  Mr Pollard: We will pass it on to the Secretary of State.

  Chairman: Let us get on with the questioning because we want to get as much impact into this short meeting as we can.

Jeff Ennis

  149. We read a lot in the press about the onerous workload of teachers in schools but I think, speaking as an LEA governor at a comprehensive school in Barnsley, that that analogy can be extended to governors, so much so that I know in Barnsley and Doncaster we are having increasing difficulty in particular in recruiting parent governors to school governing bodies. Is that the experience of governors in Birmingham? I am not just making the comment with regard to parent governors, but obviously also co-opted or other types of governors. If it is the same experience, what does the Government have to do to try and make sure it is easier for people to become governing body members?
  (Mrs Stevens) The Executive Group has looked at this issue a lot. It clearly is a problem. It is also a problem that it can sometimes take as long as three years to really get a feel for what the role of governance is about. Then you find you have got another year and then you can be off. However, we can quickly resolve that by getting people back on again because we do have a shortage of governors. We have felt for a long time that there needs to be work done with people before they become a governor so that you begin to talk to them about the role rather than inviting somebody along to the first meeting, sitting down and trying to get on with the business. We ought to be tapping into the other good work that is going on in cities like in housing and lots of community projects and trying to recruit people from those to become school governors, people who know about those communities and are working with them.

  150. Like housing action trusts and things like that?
  (Mrs Stevens) Yes. There needs to be a sort of pre-training. What happens often is that governors get on to a governing body and they are overwhelmed. They really do not know where to begin. Just beginning to understand the jargon that we so often use and which becomes the norm after a while is very off-putting. There needs to be time to explain to governors what governance is about and that might also begin to help some of the problems we see in schools where there are difficulties between governors and the school management. We need to get governors to understand roles and responsibilities.
  (Mrs Coke) I feel that if there were some form of honorarium more people might take it up. I also feel that it is not compulsory for your workplace to give you time off to become a governor because a lot of the work that you have to do does not only take place in the evening. It is about having time to visit the school; it is about having time to be part of committees during the daytime because of the time when the school opens and the business takes place. To visit the school you need to be at school when there are people in the school, when the children are there. It is about looking at how they are learning, looking at the curriculum and so on. I think a lot of people who are in work find it difficult to have the time out from work to do those chores. Also, I think if there was an honorarium it might be a carrot. A lot of inner city schools in Birmingham have people from the Indian sub-continent. The husbands are at work and the wives are not allowed to be out by themselves, so that creates a problem in itself, to get people from those communities to become school governors. There is also the language issue. A lot of them feel that they do not speak English well enough to be able to contribute because of the flow of things and the amount of reading there is and the amount of issues and the in-depth study that is required. It has taken me about four years to understand some of the things that I needed to fathom out. It is the whole process of the abundance of paperwork because you do not have somebody who is summarising and coming out with the implications and what you really need to do in some of the documents you get. There is also the other issue around the short timescale for consultation and all that sort of thing. It is an abundance of things. The ones who are committed to give time to the process are already overstretched and going to another committee meeting is an issue. I have also heard of people who have been governors and have decided that they do not want to do it any more because they felt that there was too much clique-ism within the governing body, that the chair and the headteacher sew things up and they do not take any notice of the minions if you do not quite fit the complexion of who is already there. There are a lot of issues like those and people just do not want to do it. They just see it as an other task that is cheap labour, to do a lot of work to get the Government out of paying for and getting real people to do the job.

  151. Do you think the LEA are offering enough support to governing bodies given the scenario we have just elaborated on, or could they do more?
  (Mrs Coke) I know that the LEA have done a lot of work around recruiting governors because I know that the Governors' Support Unit and the equalities division works. We need community organisations to organise awareness events whereby they do presentations to try and attract particular governors, either from the African-Caribbean or Indian sub-continent, so all that sort of stuff is going on but it is all still a hard task.
  (Mr Gillard) On the point of getting ethnic governors at schools where there is well over 50 per cent of ethnic pupils, it is proving particularly difficult. If I take you through the situation at my school, Swanshurst, when I joined the governors four years ago there was just a single ethnic governor. He left after a few months although he had done a reasonable length of service. It took us ages to even get a single ethnic governor to replace him, a serious effort of trying to find people who are interested and prepared to get involved. In fact, we have got one each year over the last two years, so that there are now three ethnic governors. We would very much welcome having 50 per cent ethnic governors, more if you wish, and we think that would only be fair. That is also reflected in a way through the interest of parents, or to a degree the lack of interest of parents. At the annual meeting for parents, despite all our efforts at our school and speaking with colleagues at other schools, it is almost impossible to get more than a handful of parents at these meetings. We have 1,750 schoolchildren belonging to the school and there are about nine parents at the actual meeting if you are lucky. It is quite extraordinary really why parents are not much more interested.


  152. They are coming in good numbers to parents' evenings?
  (Mr Gillard) Yes, much better in that respect, but not the annual meeting.
  (Mrs Stevens) I think we need to begin to value governors. Many of our governors are parents and parents of kids in our schools. We talk about wanting parental involvement. Often we are a little bit nervous of when parental involvement turns into a strategic way of thinking. It is okay to be involved in whatever is going on in the school, but sometimes it is a fear when governors want to think more strategically about what is needed for the school. We must listen to those parents because although they might not be seen to know much about education, there is still an important role for them to play in what is right for the school. I believe through governance we can begin to give control back to local people. We need to enable people to control their own lives and then we might begin not to have the behaviour issues in our schools or the truancy or the exclusion. I think if governors can really begin to believe in what we are doing we might see an improvement.

Mr Turner

  153. Fran started to answer my question. There are really two extremes in this governing role, are there not? One is that you turn up once a term and have a cup of tea and approve everything the head has said, and the other is that you get involved in the appointment of the tea lady. Neither of those is very strategic. How would you define your ideal governor's job?
  (Mrs Stevens) First of all, to understand what it is that the school is trying to do, that we have got X amount of money. I think it can be simplified. We have got this pot of money. A lot of it is going to go on teaching; how then do we best want to do it to benefit our kids in the school; what do we want for our children, and then to draw up a plan. Often governors are presented with a school development plan. You can start simple—X amount of money, limited resources. What are we going to do with these resources to ensure that our kids get the best from them? Is it going to be spent on teachers so we can start to get people to think, "Is that a key resource?", or do we think books are better? It does not take long, I do not believe, to get people thinking, "Yes, we can give more to that", but if you present things to so-called ordinary people in a certain way it disempowers them; it does not empower them.
  (Mrs Coke) Because of the amount of work that needs to be done I think sometimes teachers see governors as interfering busybodies and they do not have anything to bring to the table because they are not educators. But what I think sometimes teachers do not see is that governors are people outside of that establishment and they will be able to see what is going on in there with a different perspective. They come from businesses and you run a business on certain systems and procedures, and it is about having those systems and procedures and ensuring that you are monitoring and evaluating and providing targets and supporting and there is the pastoral care and all those sorts of things. If you are not involved in the situation you can sometimes bring a different perspective to bear. Also, in a school like, for instance, where you have African Caribbean students, we know that African Caribbean young men are under achieving. The school is a community and it takes a whole village to raise your child. It is not just the teachers in the school. It is about the businesses in the area because at the end of the day they are going to be wanting people coming out of those schools with certain skills to do the job. They are also going to be wanting this citizenship and governance around behaviour and you might not be academically qualified but you will be able to do a job and it is about the best job for that person so that they can get on the ladder of managing their own lives. You probably do need governors to be full time people to do that because they can then pick up the roles of bringing on the rest of the community. A governor's role is not a full time job and there is a lot to do. I think it needs to be more of a full time job in order to deliver what needs to be delivered. A governor will be somebody who provides support and assistance to the school and be able to bring on the wider community so that everybody is working together to achieve what needs to be achieved, somebody who can go and talk the same language as the children in the school or the same language as the community that the school serves, somebody who understands both sides of the argument from the school's perspective and from the wider community perspective. I think we can build on that.

Mr Turner

  154. In a sense we have got one model which is very much an intermediary, an ambassador role?
  (Mrs Coke) Yes.

  155. And one which is much more of assistance to the management, in fact, in a way the management itself.
  (Mrs Coke) Yes.

  156. Does the LEA seek to recruit governors by reference to either of these models or is it left very much to the individual school to say, "This is the kind of governor we want. Now let us go out and find one"?
  (Mrs Stevens) Where there are schools in challenging circumstances the LEA will be very proactive in trying to put on governors who may have the skills needed to support those schools, which is good. I think on the whole you get governing bodies doing their own audit and saying, "These are the skills that we have got and these are the skills that we need, so our strengths are this and our limitations are that", and then recruit co-opt people with the competences that they need. Where I sometimes have a problem is that there is an inequality in as much as almost by definition in certain areas you will get governors with some more of the skills that you might be looking for than in other areas and that becomes an inequality issue. We need to address that by saying, "Can we put some governor in from another area into there?", and gradually wean them out, leaving the community then to do it, but to start them off so to speak. Would that make sense? I think there needs to be a bit more of sharing skills across the city so that it is not just in the leafy suburbs where you have already got your accountant, your solicitor and your GP sitting on the governing body who are going to be able to think very strategically because they do it day to day, who are very capable of critical thinking and making sure that their kids get the very best. I want to say, "We would like a bit of that over there please". We need to be a bit more generous in sharing out those people and saying, "Let us take the accountant from here and let us see if he can help out over there". One of the biggest skills that is needed often as a governor is somebody who is good at mediating as well. We need people with very special skills. I do not believe that all governors should go into a school because they might not have the skills to go in, they might do more harm than good, but they can look after the finances. You also need people skills. You need people who can form a good relationship with the headteacher, who can then act as a critical friend. The headteacher's job I think is very lonely, very isolated, so we need somebody on the governing body who can be there with those skills to support them and say, "Come on, we can do it together". We need to start with the skills that are required on a governing body and I think there are a number of them and we have not always got them.

Mr Pollard

  157. I applaud anybody who wants to be a school governor and who is a school governor. I was one for donkeys' years. I am not now. I can go back to the time when you just used to turn up three times a year and eat the cucumber sandwiches and say how good the headteacher was. Now governors have huge responsibilities, hiring and firing and all of that. Interestingly enough, school governors form the biggest form of unpaid voluntary service in the country, and it is a strength of our civil society. When the Committee was out in Russia recently the Russian Duma and others were very interested in this mass of voluntary effort that went into managing schools. Could I also say, Fran, that what you said was the clearest exposition of a governor and what is required that I have ever heard. I am glad it is noted down because I think that can be used as a model for being what a governor is, so I congratulate you on that. Can I pursue the Forum? I am particularly interested in that, whether it works well, what are the good bits of it and whether there are things that you might like to do that you think you could do as a Forum that you are not being allowed to do either by the LEA or by central government strictures or just because you have not got the time or energy. Can I finally say that I was a magistrate for donkeys' years. I do not do it now; I am on the supplementary list. If you were a magistrate you could get money for loss of earnings. I wondered if you might pursue that as a way of reward, just for a few days. That might be a way of helping, certainly widening the net of those who might be captured as a governor.
  (Mrs Stevens) It is beginning to work more effectively. It has taken us a while to do it. The reason I think it is beginning to be more effective is that we have now succeeded in recruiting governors from across the city which does reflect our city. In the early days that was not the case. We have worked hard on doing that. We are listened to by the local education authority. We do want to begin to influence policy at a local level and we are very keen, once we see ourselves doing that, to feed more into the National Governors' Council, who I know are sitting behind me, so that we begin to get our voices heard. We produce our own newsletter, which is more like a magazine, and it goes out to all governors and the LEA has helped us in doing that. That has been a very good way of trying to communicate with governors across the city because what we found was hard was getting them out to extra meetings.

  158. So you are not alone as a body?
  (Mr Gillard) I think Kerry Pollard's suggestion of relating it to the magistrate system for getting some sort of compensation is an excellent one because, although even as far as expenses are concerned, governing bodies are allowed to have a section in their budget that allows payment for expenses, there is this feeling among many governors, and I am not sure that it is a true one, that if you take some expenses out you are preventing so many extra textbooks or library books for the kids themselves. Because nobody draws expenses nobody feels they ought to draw expenses and that to some extent relates to the type of person you have got asa governor, the majority of whom you want, but you also want the sort of people who perhaps desperately need their expenses if nothing else.


  159. We had some parents in here last evening talking to us. They were in a sense suggesting that there was not enough interaction between parents and this new organisation you have of governors across Birmingham education authority. Do you think your new organisation is strategic enough? What we are not getting in a sense is a kind of overview from someone who comes in here and says, "Okay; here is the map of Birmingham"—and what we are realising is how big this education authority is—"and here are the strengths and weaknesses from the consumer's point of view." Last night, because we had an open meeting for parents who had no organisational responsibilities or status, they came in and said, "If you live one side of Birmingham and you want education for your daughter in a girls' school, wonderful, loads of it", and in fact some were very critical of the size of your school, Roy. "It is much too big," they said, "it ruins the balance of other schools which have become almost boys' schools", because so many girls go to your school. But on the other hand they said that at the other side of the city forget education for girls in single sex institutions. I wonder if there is a role for you as a growing organisation to have (a) a better relationship with parents and (b) perhaps a more strategic view of where you want the authority to go?
  (Mr Gillard) Can I just say as background, as far as the fact that there are a couple of large all-girls' schools is concerned, it is brought about by the ethnic mix situation with the Moslems who are most anxious for girls to go to an all-girls' school.


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