I was excited when the clerk’s first email appeared in my inbox. That was, until I noticed the number of attachments. No fewer than 24 documents would be reviewed at my first governors’ meeting, all carefully itemised in the order they appeared in on the agenda.
Wide-eyed, I scrolled through policies, reports, appendices to reports, minutes, codes of conduct... it took hours. By ‘item 16 j’ (the whistleblowing policy), I felt as though I’d aged a century.
But perhaps the real question is: what had I expected? Twenty-first century community volunteering is a foggy concept to define in the minds of most Londoners. Embarrassingly, my vision of governorship had been heavily based on the parish council meetings in The Vicar of Dibley. Progress would be slow, I thought. There would be regular, comedic digressions from the agenda. Biscuits eaten would outnumber decisions taken by ten to one. I had been told that becoming a governor would be a big commitment, but I wasn’t really expecting it to be all that structured.
I was greeted by the chair of governors with a huge smile and a warm welcome. “Wonderful to see you again, Katie," he said. "Before we begin, I wanted to let you know that I was considering nominating you as link governor for vulnerable groups. What do you say?” Keen to appear... well, keen, I enthusiastically agreed. I then spent the first hour of the meeting having silent panic attacks whenever SEN or EAL improvement was mentioned. What had merely seemed like a lot of data in email format suddenly felt like an enormous responsibility when discussed out loud. Filled with self-doubt, I wondered what I could offer this school, considering I barely remember to make my own lunch some mornings.
At some point the headteacher must have noticed my worried expression, and leaned across to explain that it wasn’t up to me to fix all the issues that had been mentioned: instead, I’d work with the staff to ensure they were being properly addressed by the school.
Relieved, I started breathing again. My expectations, I realised, had been entirely wrong. I had somehow stepped into a power team of hard-working, passionate people determined to get this ‘good’ school the ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grade it deserved. Indeed, they were extremely efficient, and within two hours every item on the agenda had been debated, approved or delegated to a committee to look at in more detail.
Above all, the meeting was interesting. As I took notes and listed action points, I was struck by two realisations. First, that the decisions made in that ordinary school hall by these friendly, normal people would impact hundreds of children and their first experience of education. And second, that this highly competent team had been created by accident: a chance selection of local people pulled together by a shared interest in education. I felt as though I'd been invited to join a community, which, in a city as vast and anonymous as London, was an exciting new experience.
So how will I contribute? For starters, I’m preparing carefully for the next meeting. I’m talking to other governors, and have arranged to meet the inclusion manager later this month. I’ll also be attending a new governor training day run by the local authority (as an added bonus, this is said to provide an excellent lunch). And finally, I’m reading around my area. As the chair advised us new faces at the end of the meeting: “There really is so much useful information online these days. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of The Key?”
Katie Tiller is a specialist researcher at The Key and a governor at Christ Church (Brondesbury) CE Primary School in Brent, London.