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Managers under fire

The fact that the number of heads and deputies under suspension in the past year appears to have more than doubled is a sign, perhaps, of the growing assertiveness of some governing bodies (page 1). Votes of no confidence in chief education officers by headteachers similarly indicate shifting balances of power in the management of education. Both are, no doubt, bad news for the senior managers under fire, though not necessarily for the schools involved.

Given the rising heat in the kitchen, an increase in disputes between governors and headteachers is not altogether unexpected. The accessibility of governors to disgruntled parents, the representation of vested interests on governing bodies and their more intimate awareness of and involvement in the management decisions were always likely to make governors more inclined to tackle awkward personnel issues head-on than remoter and more disinterested local authority administrators. That, after all, was one of the reasons for increasing local management. The much expanded powers and responsibilities of senior managers have also increased their opportunities for incurring wrath by omission or commission while rising expectations and consumer-power mean parents are less inclined to suffer in silence.

But the 68 suspensions known to the NAHT need to be kept in proportion. They may put an unwelcome strain on the association's resources but rather than attacking governing bodies it might consider that, but for their forbearance, there could be many more. There are, after all, thought to be between 250 and 500 failing schools in the country which heads might be expected to accept some responsibility for and perhaps as many as 2,500 (one school in 10) with serious weaknesses. In drawing attention to the 25 to 35 per cent of unsatisfactory lessons in schools, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector criticised headteachers for paying insufficient attention to teaching quality and governors for letting them off the hook.

David Hart, the NAHT's general secretary, is right enough when he says senior management of schools has become a higher risk business. That may not have been taken into account sufficiently in determining heads's salaries by the teachers' pay review body, though its figures suggest heads are 20 times more likely to have received a merit pay increase than classroom teachers in recent years - an indication that some at least are appreciated by their governors.

In the past, David Hart has suggested a boardroom model, with the governors as directors setting strategic targets and the head the chief executive left alone to see those targets are achieved. If heads really want such a "back us or sack us" relationship with their governors, they can hardly complain if they are indeed expected to bear the consequences of failure.

Only 17 of the cases are, in fact, about heads' competence. Most are about conduct. About ten of the 68 are deputies, and were therefore suspended by heads, which leaves about one in 500 heads under suspension by governors: more than ever before, perhaps, but survival odds many company managers (and perhaps chief education officers) would be more than comfortable with.

Allegations of sexual or financial impropriety leave governors with little or no option but to suspend and David Hart should substantiate his "trigger-happy governors" allegation with a clearer breakdown of cases and causes. Those under attack or suspension are entitled to a fair and prompt hearing. Headteachers suspended by local authorities under the old regime often found their cases allowed to drag on unresolved over years to the detriment of both head and school. That inertia, at least, is less likely with governors in the driving seat.

It would be foolish to suppose that lay governors never panic or act precipitately when faced with the most challenging personnel problem, carpeting the one person they rely upon for information and advice. The NAHT has performed a service by highlighting the one circumstance for which no training is ever provided for governors. Indeed, it is a subject which hardly dares speak its name in local authority circles for fear of offending heads. It is ignored entirely in some official disciplinary codes.

Suspension only indicates that there is a case to answer. As David Hart rightly points out, it is not a confirmation of guilt. By the same token, however, lay governing bodies moved to take such drastic steps on behalf of the school should also be assumed to be acting in good faith unless they can be shown to be doing otherwise.

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