Fatal distraction: why meetings get stuck in the carpark

TES column 16 May 2014

Glancing around the assembled governors, we start a subtle game of cat and mouse.  My mission, as chair, is to get through our agenda effectively.  I have visualised a meeting of an hour and a half’s duration, full of robust discussion that results in clear conclusions to which we are all committed.  But I know, lurking among our number – possibly sitting next to the new staff governor, is a ‘car park enthusiast’.

Such governors appear to obtain perverse pleasure from taking the floor at the moment when I least expect.  Once, I watched a chair of finance pause to draw breath in the closing moments of the annual budget presentation when an interjection stopped him dead.

“All this money for extra teaching is great – but I am really worried about the car park.  I heard about an incident just yesterday when a parent drove in too quickly.  What are we going to do about that?”

Like a tennis player who has dashed to the base line to make a return, only to watch their opponent tap the ball back, inches past the net, I had been outplayed.  With the moment seized and apparently shocking new information shared, I was helpless to prevent what followed.  For the next forty minutes, we rehashed a vintage discussion – what to do about the school’s car park?

It is not always the car park, needless to say.  At some schools it is minor issues relating to the uniform or historic relations with neighbouring secondaries; poor support from the local authority or the baleful trajectory of government education policy perform the same function elsewhere. 

These are subjects on which every governor has an easily-ventilated and heart-felt opinion, debate of which cannot be concluded in a way that is of more than negligible value to the school.

Such discussions are to purposeful meetings as a burst artery is to the circulatory system.

But ‘car-park issues’ have a power all of their own.  Committed as I am to swerving their potholes, sometimes even my guard slips.  Departing unnoticed from the rails of good meeting management, I fill my lungs to provide a detailed survey of our interest in the subject to date, with reminders of previous initiatives to address the issue, all laced with sideswipes at those who have thwarted my historic suggestions to ameliorate the situation. 

Such is the oratorical power of my ‘address to the car park’ that it can revive a discussion to which every governor present has already fulsomely contributed.

That any topic exhibits such a life-force, however, means that, on occasion, it can be deployed to counterintuitive ends.  The formal responsibility of a chair of any meeting might well be to ensure that those present can scrutinise, interrogate and contribute to its business effectively.  But I have witnessed disastrous personnel issues, poor end-of-year results and even financial irregularities overshadowed by a ‘distraction debate’.

Scant energy remains once a meeting has twisted itself into a rage on any subject for the best part of an hour.  With passions spent, even the most gladiatorial governors are rendered meek.

The lesson, if you are looking for one, is this.  Letting off steam is the opposite of applying pressure.  Effective interventions in any meeting require that it is the latter to which you should devote yourself – even if the occasional detour into the ‘car park’ proves irresistible.

Tim Dawson is chair of governors at Castle Hill Junior School in Ipswich, England