Cut down to size

7th June 1996 at 01:00
It is teachers who deliver education, a reality that constrains the power of governors, as Mike Baker found. Imagine this as a governing body's dilemma. Your school has 35 children in each infant class. Your classrooms are so overcrowded you are breaking the school space regulations. Finally, after much lobbying, your local education authority says it will support an application to reduce your standard number to 30. Then, at the last moment, your teaching staff tell you they are so terrified of the budgetary implications that they do not want to reduce class size.

This was the unenviable position our governing body found itself in. Indeed, the dilemma was even worse. We are one governing body, responsible for two separate schools, one infants and one juniors. When decision day came we found that the infant school staff's united opposition to reducing the standard number was opposed by the equally unanimous view of the junior school staff that class sizes should be reduced.

Ours is an authority with one of the highest proportion of classes of more than 30 pupils in the country, although its Liberal Democrat administration took office on a campaigning pledge to reduce class sizes.

Their plans to reduce this to 30 across all schools in the borough were, it says, frustrated by government restrictions on capital for new buildings. So, instead they have encouraged individual schools, like ours, to apply to reduce our admissions numbers.

Aware of the level of public interest in the issue locally, we embarked on a consultation process. We decided to write to all parents explaining the pros and cons of reducing our standard number and to invite their views. Perhaps this is where the difficulties began. The infant staff, convinced the parents would overwhelmingly favour smaller classes, began to campaign.

While most governors were taking a neutral line, they began to work out the possible financial consequences of reducing numbers. I believe they frightened themselves unnecessarily. Their next step was to fight hard over the information to be sent to parents. Suddenly, an innocent consultation exercise risked being turned into a hustings.

On decision day, the entire staff of both schools attended the governors meeting, having asked for the right to give a presentation first. It was a long evening and would have made a gripping fly-on-the-wall documentary about the issue of class size. The infant staff, while favouring smaller classes in principle, felt the potential loss of nursery nurses and classroom assistants was too high a price to pay. The junior staff believed the educational case for smaller classes was paramount, whatever the implications for staffing.

It is at this point that governors feel the impossibility of their position. In theory we have power and responsibility to determine the two schools' direction. In reality, we know we cannot achieve anything against the will of the teaching staff. To win the argument and force the infant staff to reduce standard numbers would result in an unhappy and demoralised teaching force. That could only damage our children's education and, above all, it is for the children that we are taking this decision.

Yet, if we were to bow to the infant staff we would be snubbing the junior school staff. Where does that leave the governing body? Perhaps thinking wistfully that it would be better to have separate governing bodies for each school. But that would take away the unifying force of a single governing body over-arching the two schools which might otherwise head in very different directions.

In the end we compromised, although frankly it was not a very fruitful compromise.

We decided to vote separately for the two schools; resulting in a decision to seek to reduce the standard number for the junior school but not for the infants.

We realise that is not a strong case to send to the Secretary of State. It also raises the possibility, were the application to be successful, of some infant pupils being denied admission to the juniors.

The decision, which is, of course, the responsibility of the governing body not the teachers, will cause at best bemusement, at worst anger, amongst many parents (although one benefit of the consultation exercise was that parents had a better idea of the complexities of the decision). It has, though, underlined a serious flaw in the governance of schools.

Schools belong to their communities. So it is right that governing bodies should represent parents, teachers and the wider political and business community. In the end, though, it is the teachers in the classroom who deliver education. It is a reality that has long frustrated national governments. Similarly it is a reality that constrains the powers of governors.

So the truth is that governors have great responsibilities but very little real power.

While I reject the view I heard from one headteacher that for governors it is "just a hobby" (some hobby, sitting on under-sized chairs in drafty halls for hours), I believe the Government has over-estimated our powers. We can cajole, argue, and try to persuade but if we fail we have to let the teachers have their way.

Mike Baker is a parent governor in London

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