'In business we'd be declared bankrupt'

24th February 1995 at 00:00
This time last year I came out of a meeting of headteachers, chairs of governors and LEA officers fizzing with fury. We had just been warned to expect a cut in our schools' budgets of up to 4 per cent, and then were treated to a lecture on how we should not allow our planning to be budget-driven and the importance of a long-term development plan. We were also reminded of the need to maintain a contingency fund to replace major items of equipment. This got the only real laugh of the evening.

But the source of my anger was not just the message we had been given, but my fellow governors' reaction to it.

"Look at them all," I yelled at my headteacher, "scuttling back to their schools to try and work out how they are going to manage. They should be marching on County Hall, picketing the DFE, writing to their MPs - protesting. "

Then we scuttled back to our school to try and work out how we were going to manage.

So what has changed in the past year? Why are governors now prepared to go public?

Part of the reason is that last year many of us could manage - just. We used our carry-forwards and our contingency money, we cut spending on resources and encouraged sick staff to come in if they could crawl. We cut cleaning and maintenance and we nudged our most experienced and valued staff towards early retirement. We let class sizes creep upwards.

But this year many of us have reached the point where belt-tightening becomes strangulation. If we were in business, we would be declaring ourselves bankrupt. We struggled on when the governors and staff were bearing the brunt of cuts. Now anything further is going to impact directly on the children.

Another factor is the rapid growth of the National Governors Council and county associations of governors. Like all support groups, the associations give sufferers the comfort of knowing they are not alone, that others share the same problems. They have also given us an illusion of empowerment. Individual governing bodies can be ignored, but if we all speak with a united voice, they will have to listen to us - won't they?

The trouble is, it is not working. The DFE says that spending on schools is for local authorities to determine and is nothing to do with them. They point to administrative waste and "surplus places", which is code for "close all small schools". The LEA says its hands are tied by rate-capping, we are all making unreasonable demands on the central special needs budgets and, besides, schools have all got lots stashed away in bank accounts.

Let's go on protesting, writing to our MPs and councillors, picketing County Hall and the DFE. Let's send letters to the local newspaper, be interviewed on radio and television. Let's talk to parents and encourage them to add their voices. But I am beginning to wonder if anyone is really listening. They are certainly not giving us any more money.

Oh, well, We'll just have to manage...

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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