Governing saga ends with harsh words

Biddy Passmore on a long-running dispute between an education authority and its failing school. A two-year struggle between the governors, education authority and staff of a Berkshire primary school has come to an end with the help of a highly critical report by HM Inspectorate.

Last September Berkshire education authority withdrew the delegated powers of the governors at Lea County First School in Slough using emergency powers under the 1988 Education Act. It claims the governing body had failed to carry out its duties and was at loggerheads with top staff at the school.

The council's intervention follows a protracted wrangle with the governing body which last spring attempted to appoint Kanagarajah Vigneswaren to replace the retiring head.

The offer was withdrawn weeks later after the council objected, claiming Dr Vigneswaren had insufficient primary school experience. The authority appointed an acting head instead.

Dr Vigneswaren has alleged racial discrimination and the matter may now go before an industrial tribunal.

It was not until Berkshire insisted on an inspection and the school was declared to be failing, that the authority was able to tackle the root of the problem. In their report the inspectors said: "Urgent attention should be given to reconstituting the governance of the school to establish a sound working relationship that will provide leadership and improve morale."

Now Lea school has a new chairman of governors, county councillor Paul Sohal and three new parent governors: the vacancies had not been filled previously because of a procedural wrangle. The school, under acting head Philip Schofield, has been working to remedy the defects of policy and teaching underlined by the inspectors.

The case has highlighted the extent to which power has swung away from education authorities and towards governing bodies as a result of recent legislation.

"Government attempts to stop the authority interfering with governing bodies have gone too far," said Stanley Goodchild, chief education officer of Berkshire, this week. "Where the authority does need to get involved, the legislation is not helpful."

In their report on the 324-pupil school, where most pupils come from Indian and Pakistani families and there is a full range of ability, the inspectors said standards were unsatisfactory in most subjects, including English, mathematics and science. (They were satisfactory in religious education, music and physical education.) Most pupils lacked key skills and standards of literacy and numeracy were unsatisfactory, they said. There was a high proportion of unsatisfactory teaching, particularly at key stage 1.

The school lacked a coherent approach to the teaching of reading. By the time pupils left the school, only about a quarter were reading at their chronological age and more than half were more than one year behind.

But it was the breakdown in relationships between the governors and the school's senior management that was singled out for the harshest criticism.

"The school's affairs are the subject of various accusations and counter-accusations, some of which are the subject of legal proceedings, " the report said. "The resulting tensions have diverted energy away from central educational issues. The leadership of the school is ineffective. The senior management team operates largely in a caretaker capacity, without making strategic decisions for developing the school."

"The governing body has not met all its legal responsibilities," the report continued. "There are no written overall aims for the school and no formally-agreed school policies; disputes and acrimonious debate have contributed to significant irregularities in the conduct of governing body meetings and consequently in the management of the school's affairs."

Staff morale suffered, leaving teachers unable to develop the work of the school properly, the report said. Nevertheless, the inspectors praised the staff for their conscientiousness and said their dedication kept the school running smoothly during the absence of a permanent headteacher.

Since the inspectors' visit last October, Berkshire has drawn up an extensive action plan for the school that will be sent to Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary. If she approves it Berkshire will set about finding a new permanent head for the school, whom it hopes to have in post by September.

The school had produced a "very impressive pile of documents" since last autumn, including a practical guide to the teaching of reading, according to Philip Schofield, acting head and formerly a county senior inspector.

"There were 92 issues for action in the report and, apart from the things that were really outside our control, we've made progress on every single one. The staff have a lot to be proud of and would be happy to let HMI come back tomorrow," he added.

* A team of education experts from Bradford Council has been drafted in to a local middle school after inspectors' found some aspects of the school were poorly managed and that half the lessons were unsatisfactory.

Announcing the special measures, the council stressed that the senior management of Broomwood Middle School in Bierley had changed since the inspection by the Office for Standards in Education last November. The deputy headteacher has retired and been replaced by a curriculum manager and the headteacher has told parents that he will retire at the end of next month.

Brooomwood has another month in which to send Education Secretary Gillian Shephard its action plan for addressing the shortcomings highlighted in the report.

Mrs Shephard has waived her right to settle the fate of two schools in her South-west Norfolk constituency. Hockwold primary and Abbey Farm middle schoolwere found by inspectors to be failing. Their action plans are to be considered by Eric Forth, the education junior minister, to avoid a possible conflict of interest for Mrs Shephard.

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