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The real agenda

Another school year, another heavy round in the general election campaign. It is hard to avoid a heavy heart, too, at the prospect of rough educational debate to come, much of it irrelevant when set against the real challenges facing schools this autumn.

We already know what it means to be high on the political agenda as a subject: open season for politicians, media and assorted spokesmen to deliver their verdicts on standards and teachers, coupled with a back-to-the-past agenda for reform. The pi ce de resistance here will be legislation meant to strengthen parents' choice by offering them more grammar schools and more selection, a policy designed more to discomfit the Labour party over the Harman factor than to improve the quality of all children's education.

What will any of this rhetoric have to do with the quality of education now on offer? A closer grasp on reality can be found in The TES survey of headteacher opinion reported on in this week's paper, which focuses on the issues on which debate and policy development ought more usefully to concentrate.

Some of the findings on class size, tough spending choices and the growing shortage of specialist teachers will not come as any surprise; others, such as the increasing disenchantment with school governors and both technology and vocational qualifications, are more of a shock, and call for serious thinking. Taken together, the responses provide a snapshot of the state of schooling now, with pointers to necessary action which have little to do with choice or selection.

Rising fast up the agenda is the relationship between headteachers and their governors. It is an issue which the National Association of Head Teachers has been grumbling about, but without much response beyond unpromising code-of-conduct exchanges. Now, in the week of the damaging disputes at Manton Junior and the Ridings school, comes new evidence from our survey that these are not isolated stand-offs between the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and particular governing bodies over disruptive children, but symptoms of a wider malaise.

Four out of five heads believe that the role of governing bodies should be more clearly defined, and most subscribe to the view that schools are in danger of being run by well-meaning but interfering people. The stock answer is that governors provide the strategic overview and head the day-to-day management, but the devil is in the definitions. We now know that uneasy management coalitions have become the norm in schools and this suggests that it is time to reconsider governors' powers, for their sakes as well as teachers'.

In the acute cases where it has come to a showdown over disputed expulsions, NASUWT's tough tactics have tended to win the day, outfacing both governors and parents, but that doesn't mean that union power has always provided the right solution for both child and school. There hasn't always been enough published evidence to judge. What is certain is that governors can only decide whether to uphold a head's expulsion verdict on the strength of the evidence put in front of them, and some heads have not yet learned to play by the current rules. Governors also represent a community conscience, worrying about the subsequent fate of a discarded child.

In general, though, it would seem sensible to take another look, some 10 years on, at the formidable powers bestowed on volunteer governors by this Government, scrutinise their operation, and decide whether they should be weakened, strengthened, monitored, more clearly defined, or better supported by training.

For the rest, though our findings on the related issues of class size, spending and teacher shortages may be unsurprising, they all paint a picture rather worse than official figures. At a time when both pupil numbers and expectations are rising, they present a challenge which neither this Government nor the next should duck.

Given a stable economy, the profession will have to be made more attractive to the prospective maths, science and English teachers who are at the core of it all. And though heads and governors have, like local education authorities before them, neglected books and window-frames to save teachers' jobs, this cannot go on without lasting damage. Can Gillian Shephard persuade Kenneth Clarke of that when he settles that last pre-election Budget? Or will David Blunkett have to fight the same battle with Gordon Brown next year?

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