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Heads worried by 'nuisance' governors

Politically-nominated school governors have been attacked as a "considerable nuisance" by headteachers in a survey of four local education authorities.

Party politics at governor level is not appreciated, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has concluded.

"Significantly, heads portrayed their governing bodies as, and much preferred them to be, non-political arenas and some talked about governors representing the LEA as political nominees as 'being a considerable nuisance'," the study says.

Councillors and officers expressed reservations, however, about the extent of autonomy and degree of control exercised by headteachers and the lack of skills and accountability of governing bodies.

The study also highlights concerns about governing bodies being unrepresentative. It says that business people had often been co-opted as communitygovernors to enable a school to cope with increased responsibility. However, it adds: "It is often difficult to see such people, who are predominantly white, male and middle-class, as representative of diverse local communities."

The study discovered that for most governors the interests of the school were separate from and above the more general interests of local youth or the local community. "In this sense the many claims about the accountability vested in governors seem unrealistic."

It claims discordant voices were unwelcome and that heads wanted a governing body that was active, skilled and resourceful - but not too active.

Nearly all local authority headteachers who were interviewed wanted to maintain a relationship with their education authority which they believed should not be abolished.

Grant-maintained heads were very positive about their governing body and seemed to appreciate a strong chair with whom they could work closely.

The survey found that little remained of the considerable planning, policy-making and accountability roles which had been vested in education authorities before 1988.

It said that local management of schools, opting out and compulsory competitive tendering had all greatly curtailed the size and scope of local authority activities.

Headteachers and governors were virtually unanimous in their sense of empowerment and enhanced effectiveness resulting from the devolution of budgets and control over staffing and premises.

Primary heads, however, were generally less comfortable with their new executive functions. Some councils tolerated the changes and saw themselves as agents of central government. Others were unsympathetic, while a third group were more pragmatic.

However, the study warns: "LEAs are now operating in a kind of organisation and political twilight world where little is certain.

"Many responses and working practices are now ad hoc and temporary, even on occasions ramshackle. Issues of accountability and democratic politics are often elusive and obscure."

A full report on the research will be published in February.

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