And then there was chaos ...

5th January 2001 at 00:00
The Government's consultation on giving more responsibility to heads is ill-conceived and could have disastrous consequences for schools, warns Jane Phillips

IF politics weren't so deadly serious it would be an amusing spectator sport - witness the American election fiasco. We have our own election on the horizon. Thus, there is a sudden political imperative to move into listening mode; to consult the populace and to be seen to be doing something.

I fear that the current Department for Education and Employment consultation on governing bodies is such an attempt. Unfortunately, politicians of all parties have a penchant for putting in the solution before they have identified the problem. This consultation is a perfect example. It alights on arbitrary issues of concern to governors and proposes ill-conceived solutions. The cynic might say that politicians need short-term results - and consequently are prepared to run the risk of misdiagnosis and the possible death of the patient. Some of us realise that, in the short time they are with us, it is impossible for politicians to understand the system they are overseeing. That's why they make mistakes.

Chaos theory was formulated by physicists but could have been designed (and must have been named) for politicians. It has lessons for ministers as they make yet another attempt, with this flawed consultation, to "tweak the system".

A physicist at Cambridge University nearly managed to explain it to me in one sentence, and in words that I could understand: "In complex systems the initial conditions have a huge effect on the outcome. So if you vary the initial conditions by a tiny amount, you will get a completely different outcome. It's that butterfly's wing thing."

She realised she had my attention so launched into quantum theory: "And quantum theory states that you cannot know the starting conditions completely. This means you can't predict the future." So, in our education system the logical link that we expect between input and outcome is unreliable. Any input can have any number of possible outcomes; some can be predicted and some can't. I call this the "law of unintended consequences". It happens whenever a change occurs inone part of the system. If the change agent understands the system, she will have predicted and pre-empted most problems. If not - that butterfly's wing could be fanning a hurricane. So what might be the unintended consequences of some of the proposed changes in the consultation on governing bodies?

One proposal is that several staffing responsibilities be transferred from the governing body to the headteacher - including recruitment of staff below the leadership group, all grievances except those against the head, and disciplinary matters (except appeals). Governors would still be the respondents at employment tribunals, even for decisions made by the head. Evidence from various recent surveys shows applications for headship are down; less than half of primary teachers believe what their head tells them; and that governors' reservations about defending their own actions at employment tribunals had increased. So, is it a good idea giving heads more responsibilities? And are heads the best people to be making choices which could lead to employment tribunals? Will governors be content to defend decisions in which they have had no part? Will the trust between teachers and heads be enhanced by this change?

There is also a proposal to remove the entire governing body of a weak or failing school and to substitute a smaller, interim governing body. These "super-governors" would carry greater responsibilities and could be paid. This solution is initially attractive, if only as a stop-gap, but the unintended consequences of the appointment of "super-heads" should have resonances for ministers. The high profile and abrupt departure of several of these has shown that jetting in "heroic" leaders is not the easy solution it appears.

This consultation proposes to tinker at the edges of a system. John Adams, chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers wrote last year about the increase in governors' responsibilities: "Piecemeal and ad hoc will not do." Exactly the same could be said about these proposed reductions. The wings of that wretched butterfly have a lot to answer for.

Jane Phillips is vice-chair of the NAGM. She is writing here in a personal capacity

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