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Playing in a fantasy league

Keith Stewart finds the flaws in the Prime Minister's dream of universal GM status.

A few weeks ago I sat through a long presentation by an education officer from the local authority on the problems we, as a governing body, would face should we be so foolish as to ballot our parents on grant-maintained status.

Based on the last year's vote by the governors, which was unanimously against the proposal, it was clear to me that we were all wasting our time.

Why, I thought to myself, had the GM initiative generated so little enthusiasm? Clearly freedom from local authority control is not a pressing issue in many parts of the country, probably because many parents are prepared to leave the education of their children to the local school establishment.

There are advantages in GM status for a large comprehensive - why then no enthusiasm among teachers and governors? To me, the clue lies in the nature of the teaching profession, and the quality and make-up of the various governing bodies.

Most teachers - and particularly heads - are, I suspect, opposed to GM on doctrinaire grounds, although in my experience they are unlikely to say so. Usually left of centre, and suspicious of political interference in their schools, they have divided loyalties.

First, they like to see themselves working for the "public good" (or what they perceive that to be) in a "neighbourhood school". They do not subscribe to the view that they are providers to consumers or solely deliverers of academic results. Rather, they see themselves as purveyors of a nebulous ethos. The views and aspirations of parents concern them very little, if at all. Those of governors only marginally more so.

Second, having spent 20 years or so climbing the greasy pole, the last thing most heads want is the additional responsibility of GM status, and the uncertainties that it entails. Nor do they want to be ostracised from those cosy local authority committees and study groups which enable them to escape from the hurly-burly of school. Neither do they want to cut themselves off from possible career progression in the local authority system.

Far better to avoid extra responsibility, which carries little personal financial reward, and have the LEA in the background to cocoon them from life's vicissitudes.

Governors have different motives. There are keen parent governors, usually elected by a minority of other parents in the school and motivated, perhaps, to stand in the hope - however forlorn - that their child's education will benefit from their being involved in the school management. Similarly, they avoid saying anything which disagrees with the head's views, either out of respect, or for fear that disapproval will, in some way, rub off on their child.

Then there are the teachers' representatives, they who have clearly drawn the short straws. Tasked with putting the teachers' viewpoints, they also are unlikely to say anything which may upset the head and, like the deputies in attendance, often remain silent.

Governors nominated by the council are also likely to be supporters of the local authority line. Many are local government employees or councillors. Some, therefore are fearful for their jobs, should the GM movement become widespread.

In short, particularly on the GM issue, the authority has most governing bodies well and truly sewn up, unless, of course, opting out is being considered for the wrong reasons - to fend off closure, or a depletion of budget.

There are good reasons why GM should be considered by large comprehensives. Most schools that have made that choice would not wish to return to the old regime. A more dispassionate analysis of the issues involved is long overdue. Since LEAs seek only to preserve themselves, it is in their interests to see that that debate does not take place.

Similarly, governors realise that in becoming GM their role will change dramatically. From being little more than a rubber stamp to the wishes of the head and the LEA, real responsibility will be devolved to them, responsibility for which they could be accountable in the courts. And much more work as well. I suspect many want neither.

Should John Major have his wish and GM status becomes the norm, then I believe that an urgent review of the recruitment, qualifications and, dare I say it, remuneration of governors would need to be a first priority if the whole exercise is not to end in disaster.

Keith Stewart is a school governor.

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