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Headed off by the enemy within

The school hall was crowded with parents. We had come to support the head and chairman of governors in their efforts to tackle county and central Government over the latest round of cuts.

Over the past three years our comprehensive of some 1,600 pupils has lost five teaching posts. Now we faced at least two more redundancies and a substantial loss of income. Vital maintenance and renovation schemes would have to be postponed again, teaching resources stretched further and class sizes forced up.

Parents were incensed by what they heard. An impressive programme of lobbying, letter writing, media exposure and information-gathering was drawn up and a public demonstration conjured up out of nowhere.

We stopped the town on a busy Saturday morning, marching through the rain to a rally in the market square. Seven hundred of us - children, parents, teachers, governors and ordinary citizens - wanted everyone to know that we wouldn't tolerate further staff cuts. We wanted more funding, not less.

The demonstration raised such enthusiasm that an extraordinary meeting of governors a few days later reversed an earlier decision which would have simply implemented the cuts.

The governors resolved to prepare a budget based on the perceived needs of the school, rather than on the revenue available. Having consulted our Parent's Charter, we knew we had a right to have our grievance heard: the response of our governors made us feel someone was listening. So far, so good.

However, before long there were ominous signs of trouble. The campaign's success which had led to the governors preparing an illegal budget seemed to have taken everyone by surprise. We realised that the school's senior management, who had previously encouraged protest, might withdraw support should the resistance insist on an illegal budget.

A proposed ballot of parents, rejecting any further teacher redundancies, was headed off. There were rumours of intimidating letters and persuasive phone calls. In a situation that was so new, there was ample scope for scare-mongering and misinformation.

Then there were dark warnings that failing to comply with the cuts could place the school in a "dangerous" situation.

We began to sense that the forces ranged against us might now include interests closer to home.

It became impossible to speak about the governors as if they were a united body since they were now manifestly divided between those who had come round to the parents' point of view, and those who were increasingly opposed to the setting of an illegal budget.

It came as something of a shock to recognise that in taking on the Government and the county we were also, apparently, taking on the school itself. We were trapped. The enemy was the system the Government had put in place. We had no recourse to law.

The governors, at yet another extraordinary meeting, made what the local press described as a U-turn and set a legal budget. They were under pressure from the county which - it seemed like months ago - had been the first source of outrage about Government cuts.

Not for the first time the Parent's Charter and other "reforms" trumpeted as charters of freedom, in practice rendered everyone impotent. With politicians blithely passing the buck up and down the line we felt trussed like turkeys. It surely won't be long before we see the first challenge by parents of governor competence - on the grounds of a school not delivering the broad and balanced curriculum required by law. While the art of governing might be long, the fuse of parental patience grows shorter by the day.

Malcolm Ross is reader in education at the University of Exeter.

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