Lessons from a disaster

Last summer, a Nottinghamshire primary school was thrust into the headlines and daily news bulletins. On the face of it, this was a row about the refusal of a governing body to endorse the exclusion of one child. Manton junior school closed for eight days in a blaze of publicity. The governors were widely criticised for rejecting the headteacher's judgment. A teachers' leader accused them of "acting unreasonably" and Joe Ashton, the local MP commented, "Governors often don't know one-twentieth of what teachers do and it is time people started listening to the teachers."

But as the school inspection of Manton juniors revealed, the real problem was more fundamental. Far from over-reaching themselves in questioning the head's judgment, the governors were criticised for not being active enough in ensuring clear direction and effective strategic planning in the school.And it was the staff who were criticised for failing to keep governors properly informed rather than governors for not listening.

"Manton junior school lacks purposeful leadership and the governors and staff do not share a clear vision or direction for the school," the Nottinghamsh ire school inspectors' report said. "Relationships between the headteacher and the governing body are unproductive. The work of the governing body and the strategic management of the school have both been adversely affected by lack of information to governors, mistrust and too little involvement of governors in the life of the school.

"The governing body is not sufficientl y involved in strategic decision-making in the school and has little involvement in monitoring and evaluation. Lack of information means the governing body's decisions rest too heavily on the recommendation and input of the headteacher without the opportunity for proper debate and consideration of options. "

There was no clear agenda for improvement, the school's curriculum planning did not provide teachers with sufficient guidance, the head's reports to governors were inadequate and governors were unable to monitor the quality of education or achievements of pupils. Low expectations were adversely affecting the school ethos.

As readers of Joan Sallis's weekly Agenda column in The TES will know, Manton is not alone in all this. As Joan commented, the inspectors report on Manton was "dauntingly familiar"; it included all the classic causes of school shipwrecks. "Manton governors were divided, trying as individuals or small groups to solve problems which, without shared aims, were insoluble. The head did not trust them and gave them no information to work with. Shared aims are useless without knowledge to find the means."

But how is that sharing of knowledge and common sense of purpose to be achieved, particularly where, in the case of Manton, trust has broken down between staff and governors?

First there needs to be a consensus on what the school aims to achieve for its pupils; the aims and ethos of the school. Then there need to be clear policies and procedures so everyone understands what they are expected to do to achieve these aims. And third, the school management needs to check that those expectations are being met and that the policies work in practice.There needs to be proper recognition on both sides that both lay governors and professional staff have important roles to play in this.

In the case of Manton, the Nottinghamshire inspectors' report said a "very significant change in attitudes" was required. To help to bring that about, and to promote the more effective planning and monitoring needed to raise standards in the school, the inspectors recommendations included:

* A coordinated programme of training for governors and staff;

* An appropriate flow of information to the governing body and a recognition by staff of the need for governors to question, challenge and become involved in decisions in the interests of the pupils;

* An agreed framework for headteachers' reports to the governing body to ensure information was provided to support decision-making;

* The involvement of staff and governors at all stages in the management planning process;

* A timetable for the systematic review and revision of school policies agreed between governors and staff;

* Systems for monitoring the curriculum to be established by the head and governors to identify areas for improvement;

* Revision of the school's behaviour policy by staff and governors.

There is more to Manton and all the Mantons-in-the-making than a simple who-does-what demarcation dispute.

The inspectors' report makes it clear that the pupils at the school "are receiving an impoverished education because of poor financial and strategic planning...children are receiving an inadequately planned curriculum in an uninspiring learning environment".

As Joan Sallis put it, "Children everywhere are being damaged by adults' failure to build productive relationships, and children don't pass this way again."

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