MANY people think the buck stops with the head teacher of a school, but do not underestimate the role of the "critical friend" - the governing body, as EMMA MACKINTOSH explains.

THEIR meetings may be minuted, but the decisions made by school governors have to be made behind closed doors as they discuss sensitive information.

So what exactly is the role of a school's governing body, and what sort of decisions do they make?

They wield a great deal of power in schools - as much as the head teacher, you could argue.

To join there has to be a vacancy and you must be appointed by the local education authority; be a parent who is elected as a governor by fellow parents; or be co-opted.

Peter Nurcombe, 67, a retired dentist of 30 years' experience, has been a school governor at Caldicot School for the last 15 years and Ysgol y Ffin primary school for a decade. He is now the chairman of governors at Caldicot.

"I was asked by the local authority," he said of joining the board of 23 Caldicot governors, of which there are parents governors, staff, support staff, co-opted members, local authority elected members and the head teacher. The head boy, head girl and deputy heads also attend.

"I retired at 55, in 2002, which allowed me to be available. You try and build up as much expertise [among your governors] in all sorts of areas. Every decision has to go through the governing body."

There are numerous sub-committees on governing bodies including buildings, finance, staff and curriculum, and discipline, and member serve for four years, with main meetings twice a term. The head teacher leads the meetings and is a member of the sub-committees.

"We are there to challenge the school and to be a critical friend," he said.

Training for governors used to be voluntary, but now certain training has to be done, with chairmen and women re-training every two years and new members taking induction training, all provided by the Education Achievement Service (EAS).

Generally, parent governors are working, he said, and there are a few retirees whose experience is "very valuable".

In their ranks Caldicot's governors have a business manager, a former police officer, an ex-accountant, and a working practice manager of a health centre.

Poorly managed governors can bring a school's Estyn report down a step, warned Mr Nurcombe, and the biggest thing that some budding governors don't realise is the amount of dedication involved.

"You are responsible for the school if there was legal action," he said. "We are very careful about decisions that are made, everything is thoroughly discussed. It has allowed me to see a completely different side of life."

Through tough times, the governing body must help steer the ship, even when something as catastrophic as temporary closure and relocation happens, as experienced by everyone at Cwmcarn High School in 2013.

Gary Thomas, 65, was one of the first children to step through the door of Cwmcarn High, and now leads its governing body.

"It has united us," said Mr Thomas, who started as a parent governor more than 20 years ago and leads the 14 current governors. "We've supported the head teacher and continued to have governors meetings in Ebbw Vale, at Cwmcarn Junior School as well as Cwmcarn Workmen's Institute.

"I meet with the head teacher two or three times a week and if I don't see her she keeps me updated. Anything that needs doing, I will do. I was manning the switchboard on Friday when people were away."

The only problem with parent governors is that unfortunately they don't tend not to stay on once their child has finished school, said Mr Thomas.

"Some do, but few, and you lose a wealth of experience."

Everyone is duty bound to keep confidentiality within meetings, but the governing body wants to know the rationale behind everything, he said.

"We make sure the school is being run correctly," said Mr Thomas. "Ultimately, the governing body will decide irrespective of what the head teacher says, but you take their advice.

"We do the hiring and firing, and now we are interviewed by Estyn. The head teacher is like a chief executive and is accountable to the governing body."

Sometimes it takes a high-profile event to take place at a school in order to attract people to the post of governor.

Hannah Berry, 33, has been a parent governor at the Gaer Infants School in Newport since June 2012 and has a child in the school, as well as a child at the junior school.

The two schools imminent amalgamation in September saw application rates jump up as people became more aware of the role of the governing body, she explained.

"I'm still learning," she said of her role. "It's been all good but it wasn't what I was expecting. We are the decision makers, a lot of parents think the head teacher makes all the decisions and that really isn't the case. [Decisions] have to go to the appropriate panels and [members] all have to be in agreement.

"When I go to meetings I always switch off from being a parent because I don't want to take a selfish view."

When parents raise issues and Mrs Berry asks if they have contacted the chair of governors, people often do not know who that is, so the availability of contact information could "most definitely" be improved, she said.

"That information should be readily available," she said.