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Emergency surgery done in the dark

Governors who realise that their school is failing because of incompetence at the top can find themselves without professional advice or support, as Giles Cooper reveals.

I think it only fair to tell you, Mr Cooper, that at this stage we are minded to report that this is a failing school."

It was the fourth day of the inspection and although the Registered Inspector's statement did not exactly come as a surprise, it still gave me a nasty jolt. Things had been going much better than expected. The students were behaving astonishingly well.

One inspector had spotted some older boys in the playground breaking up a fight between some of the Year 9s - it was probably someone operating a protection racket, but it looked good from a distance. Even the head of technology, notorious for his disdain of paperwork, had managed to get his schemes of work together in time.

So what does the chair of governors do in this situation? Runs for help, or in other words rings up the education department. Having managed to catch one of the few remaining advisers, I demanded a meeting with the chief education officer. The ray of light was that surely now, at last, we could get them do something about the school's major problem.

It was something of a let-down when the head telephoned on Saturday to tell me the inspection team had decided that we were not quite bad enough to be considered a failing school. They had been impressed by tolerable standards of behaviour, good relations between pupils and staff, excellent work in some departments and the efforts of the governing body to introduce improvements in planning and financial management. But they also drew attention to some poor teaching, to low expectations and above all to serious failures in management.

When I met the chief education officer, we all knew the problem was incompetence at the top. We spent a cathartic but fruitless morning swapping stories about the head's failings, but the word was that they could not afford to pay him off and weren't prepared to sack him without due process, which would take anything up to a year. Meanwhile staff morale was at rock bottom, the good teachers were all trying to leave, and the roll was almost in free fall.

I realised that the local education authority would not take action unless pushed into it by the governing body. It was so much easier to let the situation drift until the inevitable closure. But I believed that the governors had a responsibility for the well-being of a school community of 800 pupils and staff. Why should it suffer because we were too spineless to ensure the right kind of leadership?

I was also warned that OFSTED was scrutinising the action plans of "nearly failing" schools, and that we could expect a return visit the following term.

So it was up to the governors, not only to produce a convincing action plan but at the same time to set in motion all the daunting procedures for declaring a head incompetent. The draft action plan produced by the head and staff had to be approved by a special committee of governors. We gave up a whole day to it. As I drove to school across the moors on a fine summer morning it did occur to me that if I had to take the day off work, there were better ways of spending it than sitting in the library, chairing a group of governors, all of whom felt strongly about the way forward, with a head who had just been told that competency proceedings were being instituted against him.

Although we had some advice from the LEA adviser, she could not spend the day with us. One problem was that in order to reserve enough governors for hearings during the competency procedure, the group could not be informed about the details of the complaint against him. Inevitably, however, targets in the action plan overlapped with targets set for the head. As chair I was in a very invidious position, and it put the whole competency procedure at risk.

Wherever a school is in danger of failing, the fault must lie to some extent with the head. Governors who deduce from an inspection report that they cannot rely on the professional skills of their head and senior staff, ought at least to be able to count on professional help in dealing with this incapacity.

Heads can invariably depend on their union's support, however damning the case against them may look. Governors who believe they are acting in the best interests of their school may find that they have difficulty in justifying their actions at an industrial tribunal. The whole process can founder on a technicality. They could lose their case and leave the school worse off than before, both financially and practically.

I am not making an argument for taking the responsibility away from governors. LEAs have not been conspicuous for their success in handling incompetence. I do think that the OFSTED teams should be much more explicit in their recommendations, naming names where appropriate. This would also be a protection for heads and staff.

If our school is deemed to be failing because of incompetence we are entitled to detailed evidence about where that incompetence originates. Such evidence ought then to be admissible in competency or dismissal proceedings. Why be mealy-mouthed about it?

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