Governors and headteachers have not been consulted on the Government's proposals to improve relations between local authorities and schools. Yet getting this new "Code of Practice" right can make the difference between time-wasting conflict and creating better schools. Governors and heads still have until July 3 to voice their opinions.
The crunch comes early on, in the introduction: "LEAs want to be sure that they have the powers to engage with schools and intervene where necessary in carrying out their functions. Schools are looking for reassurances against inappropriate use of those powers." The code tries to square this circle, but doesn't always succeed.
Although the code will not be legally binding, everyone must have regard to it, "departing from it only where there is good reason". The Secretary of State can give directions to an authority or school which is acting "unreasonably".
The code's principles are clear:
* authorities should know what is happening in all their schools; * they should ensure that schools can get good advice and support, not necessarily from them; * authorities should not interfere with the running of a school unless there are serious problems.
No one could quarrel with this, but the code makes the dangerous assumption that most heads and governing bodies have their respective roles neatly sorted out and are united in their judgments. In "successful" schools, this may be so. Where things are going less well, the head and governing body are not so likely to agree.
Yet the head is seen as the conduit for authority information and advice, while the governing body would deal directly with the authority only when there were anxieties. If this is partnership, the governors are the junior partners.
How do authorities know what is going on in a school? The code warns against inspections in the style of the Office for Standards in Education. Instead, authorities are expected to monitor schools using information already routinely collected.
Governors will rightly be suspicious of the idea that schools can be judged entirely on paper - and the code accepts that visits by advisers may be necessary. But unless proper reports on these visits are sent to the governing body, they may seem more like a cosy chat in the head's office than an objective assessment.
The code wants governors to be able to choose their advice and support. Many naturally turn to their authority. In the Institution for School and College Governors, we think they should be able to specify who they want.
Governors may have strong feelings (based on experience) about the quality of advice. As the new unitary authorities increase the number of authorities, the cream is spread more thinly. How can we ensure a continuing supply of well-qualified advisers?
Schools may need help in target-setting, but there is potential for conflict between the authority's need to set high targets, and the schools' wish to set targets they think they can achieve. If the authority and the school disagree, the school cannot in theory be forced to adopt new targets. In reality, many authorities send their targets for rubber-stamping by the governing body. The National Association of Head Teachers recently said that if the code is to work, the majority of teachers must cease to feel that "things are being done to them, rather than with them". Paradoxically, when target-setting is genuinely school-based, it is often more rigorous.
More fudge is apparent when it comes to headship appointments. Governing bodies retain the ultimate right to select heads, but as before must have regard to the authority's advice.However, the authority's right to object to candidates is extended. Previously the only ineligible candidates were on the blacklist or had incorrect qualifications; now objections can be made for "unsuitability".
Yet if the governing body ignores authority objections on educational grounds, all the authority can do is to make sure that the whole governing body knows and has considered its views.
The code identifies two kinds of intervention. First, informal action, like sending in an adviser. More controversially, the authority may withdraw the delegated budget - with a right of appeal to the Secretary of State The code does set some sensible criteria for formal intervention - schools must receive a warning notice and a written explanation that can be challenged by governors. But this is a one-way ticket. An authority worried about a head must write to the chair of governors, who must inform the authority what the governing body proposes to do. There is no reciprocal power for governors.
When the ISCG asked governors what should be in the code, one replied:
"Greater mutual understanding of their roles among authorities, governing bodies, and staff; true partnership . . . systems that enable staff and governors to monitor their own performance; regular formal systems for governing bodies and heads to inform authorities on school development plans; the use of national data by authorities, heads and governors to evaluate each school's self assessmentand planning."
The principles are much the same as in the formal code, but the tone is very different.
* Felicity Taylor is co-director of the Institution for School and College Governors.Free copies of the code of practice from O845 6O2 226O (or see http:www.dfee.gov.uk). Deadline for comments is Friday, July 3.