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A changed man

Manx primaries look set to get their own governing bodies, despite some objections. Laurence Pollock reports from an island heading for the mainstream.

If small is beautiful then the Isle of Man - with a population of just 75,000 in 220 square miles - should have a lot going for it.

The island is a constitutional anomaly. Not part of the UK - and allegedly still at war with Tsarist Russia - it is nevertheless influenced by mainland trends.

Manx schools, for example, are well used to the national curriculum and inspections by the Office for Standards in Education.

Now the island's 35 primary schools must get to grips with independent decision-making. For the first time each will have a dedicated governing body.

The changes have been spurred by the proposed introduction of delegated financial management.

Currently, governors sit on five "area committees" each overseeing a cluster of primary schools.

Managers appointed by these committees work with heads. The governors are all members of the island's elected board of education, which supports the education department. The proposals include plans for board members to each chair at least two new governing bodies The changes in primary schools (Manx secondaries have had their own governing bodies since 1992) will be considered by the board of education today. If agreed they will have to be implemented fast to meet the proposed post-Easter start date.

However, some question the need for governing bodies in the island's small schools, which can have just two teachers, or the viability of boards with just four members plus a couple of co-optees.

One head who does not wish to be named says the plans, both for delegated financial management and individual governing bodies, do not inspire confidence.

"We feel we will be burdened with extra pressures without any advantages. We remain sceptical."

However, Ralph Cowin, the Manx director of education, stresses there will be a constant review of the arrangements - and adjustments made if the new system does not deliver.

And, by English and Welsh standards, the new governors will face a gentle introduction to financial management. In the first year the delegated budget will be the same as the previous year. Over the ollowing two years, there will be a shift to formula funding, with money to spend on buildings maintenance and books and equipment given direct to schools.

The biggest item of expenditure - teachers' salaries - will remain with the island's education department. It will pay staffing bills in full, rather than at an average level - meaning schools won't have to bear the extra cost of employing more experienced teachers.

Anne Craine, an education board member who also sits on the governing bodies of two secondaries, welcomes the new development. "I feel parents need to have a greater involvement. We have a lot of people with an interest in schools who are excluded at present." But she adds: "We can't get too parochial - we will still all be drawing from the same financial pot. Taking a financial overview will be more difficult."

She says that it will take time for governing bodies to make a difference in smaller schools given how small delegated budgets would be to start with.

Heads, not the governing body, will be responsible for the delegated budget. But governors will carry out performance management and headteacher appraisal.

Although heads were represented on a working party that acted as a sounding board for the changes, their leaders still have concerns.

Martin Barrow, chair of the National Association of Head Teachers in the Isle of Man, is pragmatic about the proposals but is concerned about the small size of the new bodies. He says: "This gives a lot of weight to the parent or teacher-governor if they have axes to grind. I am wary." He predicts the launch of governing bodies will be delayed.

Education director Ralph Cowin insists the department will play it by ear. "The three-year implementation of delegated financial management may be longer for primary schools. We are willing to learn and negotiate."

Small bodies could also grow, with the use of co-option - "it could be the local bank manager or vicar". Mr Cowin is confident governing bodies will be set up during the summer term.

The Isle of Man's schools system offers an intriguing alternative to the Department for Education and Employment's monolithic approach. The progress of its "mini" governing bodies will be watched with great interest.

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