The Blair way to elect your head

The Labour party's method of selecting by-election candidates could provide a model for a new approach to appointing headteachers. Education ministers are understood to be looking at the idea, even though Labour's defeat in July's Uxbridge by-election was widely blamed on the national party's decision to put forward its own candidate, rather than the one favoured by local activists.

This method of selecting heads would mean local authorities approving shortlists drawn up by governing bodies. LEAs might even interview candidates on a final shortlist after governors have carried out preliminary interviews - just as Labour's national executive interviews by-election candidates nominated by constituency parties

Graham Lane, chairman of education at the Local Government Association (LGA), says the idea is worth considering either instead of or in addition to other ways of involving LEAs in appointing heads. "What we cannot have is the current system because it's throwing up too many bad appointments, " he says. Mr Lane claims that a disproportionate number of deputy heads become headteachers in their own schools, with some governing bodies regarding it as compulsory to appoint existing deputies, whether or not they are up to the job. .

While the LGA is opposed to leaving governing bodies in sole control of headteacher appointments, it is no longer calling for a return to the system that existed before local management of schools, when appointments panels were made up of equal numbers of elected council members and governors. The association now accepts governors should be in the majority but does not want teacher-governors and others who work in a school involved in selecting their own line manager.

Apart from non-staff governors, the appointment panel would include one or two specially-tr ained councillors, as well as someone from outside the education service - possibly a personnel officer from local industry. The local authority's chief education officer or chief inspector would be present at interviews to advise the appointments panel, which would also be able to invite an assessor from another authority.

The key factor, according to Mr Lane, is the experience that both elected members and people from outside education would bring to the selection process. "We are suggesting that a team of elected members would be trained in this area," he says. "They would do a lot of these appointments and build up experience and the ability to see through the waffle."

The LGA's proposals go well beyond the changes outlined in the recent education White Paper. but a Department for Education and Employment spokesman says ministers remain receptive to other ideas, some of which could find their way into the Education Bill due this autumn.

The White Paper says the decision to appoint a head is "plainly and properly" the governing body's responsibility, not the local authority's. But before offering the job to the successful candidate, the governing body would have to inform the authority, which would have the right to let governors know if it was unhappy with their choice. Governors would then have to consider and respond to the LEA's representations.

Critics say this would make the process of selecting heads too longwinded.Mike Walker of the national employers organisation for school teachers disagrees. "But if it does, then it's a price worth paying, because if the LEA has doubts about the satisfactory nature of an appointment, those should be taken seriously," he says.

The national employers organisation is concerned that without a genuine partnership with schools, Councils will not be able to play the key role in raising standards outlined by the White Paper. "In this case, if a school goes ahead with an appointment the LEA views as unsatisfactory, just to be able to refer them back is not a satisfactory power," says Mr Walker.

The National Governors Council (NGC) has set its face against the idea of governors and local authorities sharing responsibil ity for headteacher appointments. NGC chair Pat Petch describes this as a move away from local management and says that, far from being inexperienced in making appointments, many governors are responsible for staff selection in their working lives.

Mrs Petch believes the case for including elected council members on selection panels has more to do with political power than any concern about the quality of appointments, and argues that governing bodies can make sure that they appoint the right people by taking professional advice from chief education officers, LEA inspectors and personnel people.

"We value professional advice and support but we don't see any benefit in having people from outside the school on the appointments panel," Mrs Petch says. "We have to live with the appointment and pay for it and we think it should stay with the school." Mr Lane retorts: "If they make the wrong decision, it's not the governing body that suffers, it's the children."

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