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How it can go wrong: The inadequacy of the system

The case of one Berkshire school illustrates the unwieldiness and ineffectiveness of the procedures covering governors' performance. It took Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, nearly a year to adjudicate on a complaint by the local education authority about the governors' behaviour and a counter-complaint by the governors about the authority - in which time the school had been declared a failing school by HMI.

In 1994, a serious clash between, on one hand, the governors and, on the other, the staff and the authority led in July to the authority filing a complaint to the Secretary of State claiming that the governors had behaved unreasonably.

The governing body, said the authority, had failed to produce a budget, had not communicated properly with the headteacher or acting headteachers and had not consulted the authority. It had not performed its duties reasonably or communicated properly in the way it appointed a head, in the conduct of its meetings, and in its relations with staff, the authority and the clerk to the governors.

In response, the governors complained to the Secretary of State about the education authority. They said that it had refused to ratify a particular appointment and had not allowed them to carry out their local management functions without interference. The school's management, the governors said, had acted in concert with the authority to deceive them.

These were all serious matters, and the conflict was severely disrupting the running of the school. In mid-October, Mrs Shephard asked for further particulars. But it was not until June 1995, on being pressed by the authority, that she finally gave her response - and, by then, the authority had had no alternative but to withdraw the delegated budget and HMI had declared it a failing school. The inspectors were extremely critical of the breakdown of relations between the governors and the authority, which they said had arisen largely from the governors' misunderstanding of their role.

In the circumstances, Mrs Shephard declined to deal with most of the complaints, arguing that the declaration of the school as a failing school and the authority's withdrawal of the delegated budget meant that all the relevant issues had been addressed already. She was not prepared to adjudicate on the failure by the governing body to set a budget or on other matters that were within the governors' discretion. In essence, the only conclusion she came to was that the authority had not interfered improperly in the running of the school by the governors.

It is impossible to know what Mrs Shephard might have done if the inspectors and the authority had not intervened. What is clear is that in the 12 months it took to reach a decision, serious questions about the provision of education for children at the school were not addressed.

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