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A school's best friend

The governor-headteacher relationship is deteriorating because of unfortunate new practices, says Joan Sallis

What would you, headteachers, say about your governors? My best friends? A waste of space? Out of their depth? A pain in the neck?

Most weeks when I answer governors' questions in these pages I just stick to the task, trying to ease the troubled waters with a bit of common sense.

Lately a few of the cases involving heads and governors, which are there for all to see, have upset and troubled me.

Just this term I've answered questions from a head unashamedly trying to influence a parent-governor election, from governors worried about a head's "unbridled power" and from another concerned that a teacher witch-hunt resulted from a delegation of their powers.

My TES column is not the only source of my contacts and experience, so I'm not just generalising from schools in trouble.

But I do suspect that the relationship is deteriorating - and please believe that I know many thousands of heads make a contribution which is an example and inspiration to us all.

But I also believe that there are forces at work outside schools which encourage - or at least do not discourage - departures from this good practice. I sense, in short, that fighting the governing body has become a bit more respectable.

The governor training and support teams are brilliant everywhere I have been, but I'm thinking of more powerful influences than that in local education authorities and beyond. The message about partnership does not come through as clearly any more, nor the one about accountability which is to me the heart and soul of any good public service.

There has never been more attention paid to preparation for headship, but I see little evidence that the relationship with governors plays a central part in it. Maybe those who provide the training are mostly insiders themselves?

I have always felt that governors' organisations and services should be more involved. There is a huge amount of talent there. I also sense that a more up-front and top-down concept of leadership is fashionable, rather than the in-the-middle and all-around process which to me is the only suitable one for a school As for government initiatives, it is clear from recent issues of The TES that quite a few people have read the Five Year Strategy. I cannot find words to express my despair about the damage it will do to any semblance of public accountability if it is pursued.

Like most people, I cannot see how a Labour government is talking about businesses, faiths or philanthropists acquiring schools which can set their standards, employ teachers, select pupils and frame their own systems of governance with little representation of parents or communities and dominated by sponsors.

But wasn't it Labour, you will say, who set up the Taylor committee in 1975 and brought to an end a system of governance which had in many areas become an empty ritual? Didn't they replace it with one which brought in parents, teachers, community and democratically-elected LEAs in A New Partnership for our Schools?

I ought to know. I fought my youth away for that and only got invited on to the committee because my own local authority had reformed governance in response to intense public campaigning two years earlier, and had become a model.

But it wasn't Labour which implemented the Taylor report. Labour set up the committee and its education minister, Shirley Williams, was really enthusiastic. But it did not implement it because it was by then a tired government and somewhat scared by the National Union of Teachers' dubbing of the report as a "busybodies' charter".

I think the union later regretted this. Certainly the influence of teachers in governance has for me been a great contribution to democratic and harmonious schools. I fought for it as earnestly as I did for parent representation and always will. So what happened?

Well, it fell to a Conservative government to implement it, and by then partnership had a slightly different agenda. The Government wanted to create an education market. Parental choice was promoted by creating a standard product, the national curriculum, against which schools could be compared through published league tables, the process to be monitored by the Office for Standards in Education.

Schools could opt out of local authority control (though the authors of this largely unlamented experiment were amateurs compared with the authors of the Five Year Strategy). But governance remained by and large a balanced partnership.

The two Education Acts passed by Labour in 1998 and 2002 should have alerted us to the present threat. It would have been easy to restore the simplicity of the partnership envisaged by Taylor. But it was a different Labour party, much more under the influence of business, also mesmerised by choice and, it is widely believed, sympathetic to those elements in headteacher circles which wanted a more independent role.

Even leaving aside the promotion of private finance initiatives, academies and specialist schools, there were messages to be read about New Labour's plans: streamlining of governance processes, with much more scope for delegation; opportunities to amalgamate or federate; introduction of associate governors (unaccountable); allowing governors to run other community services (keeping them busy?).

And heads were encouraged to exclude governors from teacher appointments.

(I wish enough teachers - and heads for that matter - saw the dangers in this.) Altogether a belief was spreading among governors that, although there was no compulsion, there was strong encouragement to heads to reduce the scope for challenges of any kind by governing bodies.

I heard many say that if you were unfortunate enough to have the occasional head who did not want to work with governors, there was nothing you could do about it. But if that school went downhill you would soon have Ofsted berating governors, bringing them back into teacher appointments, attaching each one to a school department (a practice which even I consider dubiously wise, being so near the sensitive line between governance and management) and those same governors would have little time with their families.

But back to the Five Year Strategy. To take even the most sanguine view, there is bound to be less accountability in the academies which this government wants, founded by business or individuals, owned by who-knows-who, aiming who-knows-where.

There is less accountability in areas where selection is brought in again, first, because selection fragments the constituency, but also because the families of those selected may be too grateful to question anything, while those not selected may be hostile.

But whatever the ownership, ethos or organisation of a school, it is still a more responsive place, more able to win community support, less prone to dangers and injustices of all kinds, if it has a governing body of free and equal members answerable to parents, staff and neighbours for its actions.

Heads might, in the worst scenario, also be safer with proper governors.

But I still have a dream that heads and governors will form a partnership strong enough to fight together against these evil proposals, a partnership which will be unconquerable. And even if it means that my TES column dries up for lack of questions, I will still feel wonderful.

Joan Sallis 29

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