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Ruling divide

All governing bodies are equal, but some are more equal than others.

For almost six years businessman Mark Suckle spent the first two hours of each working day at his children's school and many evenings working on school matters. He was the school's financial controller, services manager and communications officer, all unpaid positions.

Now his youngest son has left Hallfield primary school in London's Bayswater, Mark has stepped down from his official role as chair of governors. Most of the extra-gubernatorial duties he undertook are now being carried out by paid part-timers. But Hallfield can still count on its highly-interventionist governing body for a range of top-grade professional skills as well as for influential contacts.

The staff committee continues to deal with the detail of staff appointments, from drawing up the specifications - after direct consultations with teachers and management - to final interviews. The finance officer reports to the chair of the finance committee, and the senior caretaker to the chair of the site committee, an experienced project manager.

For fundraising and advice on budgetary strategy, Hallfield can call on parent governor Gail Rebuck, one of the UK's top dozen businesswomen. And Ms Rebuck's fellow-governor husband, Phillip Gould, the man who tells Labour leader Tony Blair what voters are thinking, can provide tips on staying in touch with parent opinion. The curriculum committee is headed by a former TV producer from the BBC's Open University team.

You would be unsurprised to find such an array of talent and muscle on the governing body of a posh, fee-charging school - and Hallfield's part of London is full of them. But none of the minibuses that collect well-groomed juveniles from Bayswater's leafy squares and terraces each morning heads for Hallfield: it is a multi-cultural county primary school - or rather, two schools, infant and junior, with a joint governing body, which share a campus on a council estate, Hallfield's self-confident governors are drawn from a small, white, middle-class minority of the parents. Forty per cent of the children have Arabic as their mother tongue, and Asian and African pupils outnumber the Europeans among the 70 nationalities represented. Some pupils are the children of embassy staff or businessmen and women. But more have parents who are poorly-paid restaurant or hotel workers or penniless refugees. And among the white pupils, as many or more come from council estates and bed and breakfast hotels for the homeless as from the elegant squares and terraces.

There is no question of Hallfield's governing elite using their dominance to favour their own children's needs. Nobody connected with the school doubts their total commitment to raising the achievements of all its pupils.

If the social history of the past 30 years or so had been a little different, none of this would be surprising. Much of post-war urban planning, including the comprehensive ideal, was inspired by a desire to increase the integration of middle and working-class communities. The hope was that all schools would benefit from the presence of middle-class children with demanding and articulate parents. But the middle-class exodus from the inner cities has made this a fading dream. Hallfield and a handful of other schools on the northern edge of Kensington Gardens and Holland Park are among the few where the dream has been realised. The combination of leafy backwaters and vibrant tourist streets attracts the professional classes - and many believe their children should not be segregated from the children of working-class families.

There are a handful of other inner-city districts, mainly in London and some university towns, where gentrification has produced a similiar mixture of classes to the benefit of local schools.

In the rest of urban Britain there is a staggering disparity in the ability of schools to recruit high-quality or even competent governors. Because the problem has deep demographic and class roots, it may be intractable. Most inner-city schools lack not only middle-class parent governors, but can rarely get middle-class professionals to take up any of the other places.

Within two or three miles of Hallfield, in the same local authority, Westminster, some schools are hard pushed to find a quorum for governors' meetings. Heads worry because there is no one to question their judgment and keep them on their toes, let alone lend a skilled hand. Reports and policy statements that are legally required to express the governors' independent views have to be written by the head and rubber-stamped. With luck, a school may be allocated a conscientious council member to serve a stint, the city hall's equivalent of a posting to Ulan Bator.

The northern end of the borough is typical of many of the UK's deprived inner cities - full of dreary working-class housing estates and crowded ethnic minorities. It is devoid of sizeable businesses other than drug-dealing, and few residents have the skills or confidence to take a hand in the running of local schools. City executives and Whitehall mandarins may drive through each night on their way home to the suburbs, but few are prepared to park their shiny cars among the old bangers to attend meetings of a school governing body far from their own homes.

Business governors, a statutory requirement, are seen by most heads as among a school's most useful assets, especially if they work for big companies committed to supporting education. As well as bringing organisational or financial skills, they can act as a conduit for support from their firms.

The head of one of the area's schools, a highly successful primary, has been trying in vain for years to find such a person. Her husband's business contacts, senior executives of companies heavily involved in school liaison schemes, always promise to help but never manage to find anyone prepared to volunteer. "A few years ago we had a bright young Marks and Spencer manager who spent a day with us on a management exchange. He was so fascinated by the school that he accepted our invitation to become a governor. But after a few weeks he was moved to a job outside London, and couldn't find a colleague willing to replace him," she recalls.

Schools on the prosperous southern fringe of Birmingham, have neighbours such as Cadbury, Kalamazoo, and Rover - all companies long involved in education partnerships. Consequently, they have little difficulty in finding executives with a bevy of skills and contacts. It is the same in middle-class Sutton Coldfield on the other side of the city.

But in the ring of districts around the city centre, finding a business governor is likely to mean persuading the owner of a one-man balti takeaway that his acumen and judgment will be of real value to the school.

Wendy Pemberton, head of Regents Park junior and infant school in Small Heath, is excited because she has just secured the services of insurance manager Mohammed Iqbal as chair of the finance committee. "We're hoping for great things from him," she says. Like so many heads of schools in deprived communities, she says most of her parents would do anything to help the school, but lack the confidence to take on governorships.

But parents, and others in such communities, must be given time, says another Birmingham head who wishes not to be named. She believes their schools are better off in the long run without the interference of middle-class outsiders. "Given time, a community will produce its own representatives who will learn to run their school. It is a process of empowering local people instead of perpetuating community dependence," she says.

Pat Petch, chair of the National Governors' Council, agrees. She says governing bodies can learn to do a good job if they are encouraged to develop as a team and given the information they need.

But former Birmingham adviser Nargis Rashid, who has been coordinator of the city's governor training for the past nine years, says inner-city schools cannot afford to wait for home-grown talent to develop governorship skills. She says: "There are enormous obstacles to overcome. Most of the people in these communities who have the potential to become governors are either working long hours or preoccupied with trying to find a job. Getting to meetings if you have no car can take ages. Then there is the risk of street crime."

In any case, she adds, whatever the long-term benefits of "empowering the community", today's children are missing out.

Birmingham's chief adviser, David Woods, agrees. In the days before governors were given control over delegated budgets, they had little effect on schools, he recalls. Birmingham, like Manchester, did not even bother to set up individual governing bodies for its primaries. "Now the great disparity in the ability to recruit good governors is reinforcing the other inequalities between schools in the inner cities and those in prosperous suburbs," he says.

But his boss, Birmingham's chief education officer Professor Tim Brighouse, is among the academics and heads who take the opposite view. "There is no research evidence that shows the quality of governing bodies affects the performance of schools," he maintains.

A half-hour drive beyond the city limit, in the rural fastness of Housman's "blue remembered hills" few would agree. The 150-pupil Ditton Priors area primary in Shropshire owes its very creation to the professional skills of one of its governors, retired Dudley education director Ron Westerby. As chair of the former small village school he persuaded the Education Secretary to disapprove an opt-out by another school which would have wrecked the merger that created the school. But how many other governing bodies could have mounted such a defence?

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