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Bitter battles over who rules the head

"It is," thinks Hadrian Southorn, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, "a huge hoo-ha over a very small problem". He is being dismissive, and perhaps deliberately provocative, about the National Association of Head Teachers' recent complaints about governor behaviour.

For every board of governors treating a head like a football manager, to be thrown out when the team does badly, NAGM gets half a dozen complaints about headteachers behaving like Roman emperors, says Mr Southorn. "Many heads have not come to terms yet with the 1988 Education Act."

No one on the governors' side denies claims by David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, that some governors are over-stepping the legal bounds of their powers or that the number of headteacher suspensions known to the NAHT has doubled to 68 over the past year. What is in dispute is the implication, strengthened by some NAHT conference speeches, that the cause of strained relationships can always be laid at the governors' door.

There are two problems here. Almost half of the suspensions the NAHT is so concerned about involve heads (and other teachers) in allegations of misconduct, mostly of a sexual nature. David Hart of the NAHT admits that the decision whether to suspend automatically when an allegation of abuse is made is not clear-cut.

Teachers removed summarily from their posts often find themselves isolated and under enormous stress, possibly for many months, while complaints are investigated and the police and the Crown Prosecution Service consider charges. Yet anything less than the removal of an accused teacher in such circumstances, he admits, would worry parents.

The issue of child abuse falls within the terms of the Children Act. All the teacher unions hope that guidelines being drawn up in co-operation with the local education authorities and the chief police officers will make teachers less vulnerable to complaints of child abuse, some of which turn out to be unfounded or even malicious.

Other issues which bring heads and governors into conflict may be even more protracted and intractable, and most centre on the precise nature of the relationship between the governing body and the head. Mr Hart is convinced that too many governors still do not understand that they do not have any power as individuals. Their rights in the school are wholly dependent upon decisions of the governing body as a whole.

Similarly, in many disputes the dividing line between a policy-making governing body and a head in charge of the day-to-day management of the school becomes blurred. The NAHT helpline, Mr Hart says, is picking up complaints from heads who find governors becoming involved in parental complaints and disciplinary matters at an early stage.

Other groups of governors are attempting to change school policy on the curriculum, subject options or teaching groups, in the teeth of opposition from heads and their whole staff. Mr Hart said: "These problems, if they are mishandled, can destabilise a whole school."

John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, is not quite so consumed with a sense of crisis, but has concerns about schoolgovernor relations too. He is particularly concerned about grant-maintained schools, where governors are on occasion "behaving abominably" although not as abominably, in his experience, as some independent school governors have always done.

Mr Sutton says: "The SHA council has just passed a resolution calling for governors to observe due process and recognise natural justice when dealing with heads and staff. In my experience the worst problems arise with business governors who imagine they can run a school like they run Bloggs plc, and with male governors who are overbearing with women heads."

Martin Clark, south-west regional officer of the NAHT, has found similar causes of friction. He says: "Some of our greatest difficulties arise in villages where a new head may be a complete outsider. The governors may have sought change but they do not like the effects it causes among people they have known for years. They take complaints and grievances very personally. They don't refer problems to the head and they probably do not understand about fair complaints and grievance procedures. As a result the heads find themselves under extreme pressure."

Mr Clark says trouble may also be provoked by business governors used to employees who jump when they say jump and are surprised to find that this is not what headteachers normally do. "You get very difficult clashes of personality."

One obvious answer to the increasing number of disputes between heads and governors must be governor training. Joan Sallis, doyenne of trainers, says that she is greatly impressed by the quality of training many local education authorities offer, but the governors who most need training, including heads, may not go on courses.

She says: "There are undoubtedly governors who may tend to meddle, simply because they want to be useful. I don't think this ought to be taken too dramatically.

"Then there are heads who are still not allowing governors to do the job they are there for, who are not passing on information as they should, and are then surprised when governors intervene too late, apparently out of a clear blue sky."

Simon Goodenough of the National Governors' Council feels what is needed more than anything is clarification of heads' and governors' roles, preferably locally, school by school. That, he thinks, is a form of training in good relationships in itself. "The relationship between professionals and volunteers is a difficult one, not just in education. But when it comes to serious issues of competence then governors do have to act, even though they may agonise over it. The Office for Standards in Education makes it quite clear that they have a monitoring role."

The solution proposed by the NAHT is a national code of practice. However, a draft the association drew up in co-operation with AGIT (Action for Governor Information and Training) did not meet with an overwhelming endorsement from the Department for Education and is now to be discussed with representatives of the governors' organisations and SHA.

David Hart is unrepentant in wanting much clearer guidance from the centre on where the responsibilities of heads and governors begin and end, basing his case on the code of conduct issued to college governors by the Further Education Funding Council. He would like to see heads clearly responsible for appointing staff below "senior level" - that level to be agreed with governors - for disciplinary action up to the point of dismissal, and for pay policy, as laid down by the governors. This would not preclude governors being involved in the way they are now, particularly in appointments, by agreement with the head.

He says: "My association seems to be on the receiving end of a rising tide of problems. I am sure a code, reached by agreement, would help. We really should not be getting into situations where heads and governors are at daggers drawn."

Governors' representatives agree with Mr Hart, even though some are aggrieved at the way the NAHT thinks it might achieve such a worthy objective. Joan Sallis is appalled that heads should try to draw up rules for a partnership of which they are members. She says: "If we are not careful the system will sink under the weight of what is being proposed. What we need is much more akin to the Sermon on the Mount than the Ten Commandments. We need something much more mutual. The relationship between heads and governors will work if the attitudes and principles are right."

Hadrian Southorn of NAGM says that he intends to be even more forthright when he goes to see the Secretary of State to discuss the proposed code. "I think we should be quite clear that we are talking about a tiny minority of governing bodies who have got a bit drunk on power," he says. "You have to set against that the frequent complaints we get from governors who say they cannot sleep because their head is being dictatorial, is not giving the governors information they have a right to, is not answering legitimate questions, or is taking any query on policy as criticism."

He is afraid that rigid codes will make this sort of situation worse. "We'll be having governors visiting schools almost under armed guard, seeing just what the head wants them to see. We'll have governors being expected to appoint a new head without having gained any experience through helping with the appointments of other staff. And sadly, we'll be seeing heads laying themselves open to charges of favouritism or even nepotism because they cannot see the advantages of having an outside, objective view involved in decision making. "

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