Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-177)
MRS MONICA COKE, MR ROY GILLARD AND MRS FRAN STEVENS
WEDNESDAY 18 SEPTEMBER 2002
160. Members of this Committee were quite puzzled to hear that there was such a large school. We admire anyone who can run a school as large as that.
(Mr Gillard) It is run very efficiently, in fact.
161. How many pupils are there?
(Mr Gillard) There are 1,750 for this existing year.
162. The largest girls' school in Europe, you said.
(Mr Gillard) Yes. It comes about from a merger, in fact, going back to the days when grammar schools ceased to be, of the grammar school and the secondary modern school and an early sixth form college.
163. Many of us represent areas with pretty high ethnic minority populations but we do not have girls' schools.
(Mr Gillard) There is just the demand when people send in for admissions for these girls' schools by the Moslem communities.
(Mrs Coke) I think it is true though that there is an abundance of the type of school that has just been spoken about on one side of the city and not enough on the other side. That has been a big issue within the city, hence the setting up of the first Moslem school. I think it is for those reasons that the Moslem school was set up. There is a role for the Forum and, as Fran said, this re-launched Forum is beginning to develop a focus. It will also come back down to yet another meeting for yet some other governors to go to. That will also create a problem. At the moment the Forum is financed by £50 from each school. It also needs more money going into the school from the authorityI am not quite sure if they have put extra money in; I am not quite sure what the finances are for thatto be able to do some of the things that need to be done. At the moment we produce a newsletter about four times a year and that newsletter goes to every governor in the city to their personal address, and if you are a governor you may also be a parent governor, so there is a mix there and it does get into the school. What is not happening at the moment is to try and get to those parents through another mechanism. A system needs to be in place where, if there is an issue coming up that we need to take on board, then we can take that on board. We used to hold on a quarterly basis meetings in different areas of the city where we invited governors. What we need then to do is to look at how we begin to put something in place that we can present or do a presentation on to the whole school or groups of schools instead of just looking at governors because it was only for governors, trying to glean the views and aspirations and issues that are coming from the governing body. The intention was that the parent governors on those committees would then be able to go back to their schools and disseminate that information. The newsletter goes out on the Birmingham Grid for Learning. There is a website. We obviously need to do some more work in trying to get to those parents.
164. What range of training does the local education authority provide for school governors?
(Mrs Stevens) I have to say they do provide excellent training. You name it, they will cover it, from financial management to managing the new code of practice to appointing headteachers. The quality of trainingI do not know if my colleagues would agree with meis excellent. Where the problem lies is, because money has not been earmarked in the school budget for training for governors, as Monica said a while back, often governors feel as though they are depriving the school if they use that money for training and I think the money needs to be clearly earmarked and therefore the headteacher can say, "We must not carry forward an underspend. There is money here for training and you need to go and spend it." I know schools where they say, "We cannot spend it because there is already a shortage of money".
(Mr Gillard) I think there is a sum that is ring fenced.
(Mrs Coke) It is in the standards fund. It can be spent and some schools do spend it.
(Mrs Stevens) Obviously you are spending it, Roy, and that is probably in a school where it is ring fenced. But if it is not clearly ring fenced it can be used for other things. I think that governors should all be encouraged to go on training because there is so much to do.
165. Given that, because my experience is very similar in two local authorities, training for governors that is available is excellent, is enough made of that in terms of making people aware of the fact that training is available? I was scared when I became a governor of the responsibility I was taking on but, having had the initial training, I suddenly thought, "That is fine because I am going to get the support". As well as training, just going out to recruit people, is it made clear that this level of training is available to support people once they become a governor?
(Mrs Stevens) The city is trying very hard to make sure that that training is accessible to all and that it can be delivered in very non-threatening ways as well. We have got whole school training going on. I know through talking to governors that some governors can feel quite intimidated. It is like the fear of going back to the classroom, "Will I be given a pen and paper? Might they spot that I do not spell very well? Will I be asked to do that?" In fact, none of that ever takes place in training but it can be a fear. I think that local authorities can say, "We can come in and do whole school training; thereby you will get it." It is good, what goes on in Birmingham.
(Mrs Coke) I will support that. You cannot fault the training for governors that takes place. My only concern is that training should be given to people who may be interested in becoming governors as opposed to waiting for them to agree to be governors. If you begin to train and have a pool of people who are interested so you give them that taste and understanding of what the role is, it will probably then help their thinking and understanding that when they do get into the role, instead of thinking, "Oh, this is too much for me. I am frightened. I did not know what I was taking on. I am out."
166. Sort of taster courses?
(Mrs Coke) Yes, although when we asked a question about that we were told that it comes down to money and there was not the money there for that.
167. If the Forum is successfully re-launched and gains great influence and takes on amore strategic role, there could well be occasions where the interests of your individual school will be at odds with the needs of the wider community and the position of the Governors' Forum. If there were such a conflict of interest, where the case put by your individual school was clearly causing problems for neighbouring schools, would you put your own school's interests first or the interests of the Governors' Forum first?
(Mrs Coke) We would not do that ourselves. We would go out to consultation, I think.
168. Who would you consult?
(Mrs Stevens) As members of the Forum Executive we already often sit in on committees in the city, on admissions, school organisation and so on, where you are having to make decisions which will not please some of the governors. You may be saying, "I think this school should merge because we are taking a view that that is the way forward for that school".
169. If I can give an example, if the issue to be considered by the Governors' Forum was the merger of a number of schools of which yours was one, and if your headteacher and the rest of the governing body were against a merger, how would you deal with that?
(Mr Gillard) I do not think the Forum could ever have executive powers in that sense at all.
170. If the Forum is going to take on a wider role it will have to grapple with these broader issues and it does not have executive powers but it would be expected to express an opinion or make a recommendation.
(Mrs Stevens) If it was a merger of a school and you happened to sit on the Forum and your school was going down that road and you did not want it to be, the committee that was making that decision as to whether it merged or not would be the school organisation committee. If you sat on that committee I think you should say you have a vested interest and that it should be another member who sits on that.
171. I understand that. Leave aside sitting on other committees. I am interested in the clash of responsibilities or the clash of loyalties for individual governors sitting on the Governors' Forum. If the Governors' Forum is going to have some teeth or some influence it is going to have to engage with these wider issues and this is where the conflict between your role as a representative of the Governors' Forum and your role as an individual member of the governing body of your own school could well come into conflict.
(Mr Gillard) If that did arise one would declare an interest.
172. But would you still vote for your own school?
(Mr Gillard) You would express your own personal view.
(Mrs Coke) I think you would have to go case by case and you would have to look at what is best at the time prevailing and, if you are being truthful about it, whether you are on the Governors' Forum or within your school, you are going to be stating the same thing anyway.
Chairman: I think that is a brilliant point to make, Monica.
173. My question is partly a follow-on from the point David was asking, about clashes of interest. If there is a clash between the governors of a school and the LEA or the school or whatever, how is that resolved? For example, last night we had two parents sitting there who were former governors of Washwood Heath and we have another one who is sitting there now who is a former governor of Washwood Heath. What was all that about and how was that resolved between the LEA, the school and governors, most of whom appear to have resigned?
(Mrs Stevens) I was a governor who came on to it.
174. I suspect this answer could be very long.
(Mrs Stevens) What went on there? Is that the question you ask?
175. Yes, how did the governors, the LEA and the school resolve whatever that issue was?
(Mrs Stevens) How did it or how should it? I think that at that school there was a classic example of the need for mediation to take place to understand where people were coming from. No blame attached to anybody, I would say, because it was about trying to listen and learn from everybody. That is where I think there needed to be that really skilful mediation.
176. The two former governors who were here last night were very cross about whatever it was that happened. They felt very hard done to.
(Mrs Stevens) We have to listen, do we not? We have to listen to the community.
177. But they felt they had not been listened to.
(Mrs Stevens) Who knows?
Chairman: I do not think we are going to get much further. Can I say how grateful we are for your time, for the frank way that you have answered our questions, the forceful way you have answered our questions, and that it has been a pleasure. Every time someone comes in front of our Committee they nearly always, they tell me, when they get in their car, get on the bus, or walk home, they say, "I wish I had said that". You have only got to drop us a line and we will add your remarks to this part of our evidence. Thank you.