14th November 2003 at 00:00
I have read in the press that we can expect another catastrophic fall in the school population. What are the implications for school governors?

When falling rolls last hit the headlines the distribution of power and responsibility in schools was very different. Local education authorities then controlled the bulk of school finance, fixed the teaching complement of schools and footed the bills, planned for major changes in the market situation and did their best to help those worst affected. Now the school bears the responsibility and risk.

Governors should first see that they get early warning in the form of the latest local birth statistics and keep them reviewed. Caution in creating new posts and filling less crucial ones would obviously be wise, and so would more short-term contracts - though a nasty little habit, this is better than redundancy. Perhaps some form of sharing appointments of marginal teachers or more vulnerable posts with a neighbouring school will emerge. Primary schools can perhaps be imaginative with team teaching and the use of classroom assistants (please, Government, don't renege on class size limits), and secondary schools, sadly, will have to be cautious about introducing new subject options and stricter about small groups in minority subjects - miserable decisions again.

There are limits to what schools can do on their own, and I very much hope that the Government and local authorities will simply fund schools more generously, perhaps with an element of positive discrimination to cushion the bonier ones. Perhaps they might also have a small "pool" of teachers whose contracts are with the local education authority, to use flexibly. Or they might take over the burden of redundancy payments wholesale. (Pigs might fly.) What the present government may hope for is that falling rolls will encourage greater co-operation among schools through their pet federation and shared governing body schemes, which would, it is believed, encourage collaborative planning. I dislike these strongly, in part because they echo much abused grouping practices long ago which became just another means of marginalising governors, but much more because I think they reduce local accountability, encourage "professional participators", and make it harder to deal sensitively with a bad Office for Standards in Education report, teacher misconduct or other embarrassment affecting a member school. Anyway is it really likely that, in the more competitive atmosphere created by falling rolls, schools will go for such wholesale forms of collaboration? Surely it is more likely that they will develop secretive habits? My experience suggests that collegial attitudes thrive in times of expansion and soon fall victim to hard times. But one thing I am optimistic about.

The past 15 years may have made schools more competitive but they have created governing bodies which are readier to accept responsibility for the well-being of the school and are fiercely protective of children's interests. This will be a great strength.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 0171 782 32023205, or see governorsask_ the_expert

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