In diversity we trust...

18th November 2005 at 00:00
... but not in parents to select their own governors, says Stephen Adamson after reading the new white paper.

The good news for existing governors in the education white paper is that the Government thinks you are doing a pretty good job.

About nine-tenths of the way through, a short section on governance starts off by noting the huge debt that is owed to the commitment and hard work of our school governing bodies.

The further good news is that there is no planned change to the constitutions of existing governing bodies. Fears that the white paper would propose a reduction in the number of serving governors have proved groundless.

The other welcome news is the acknowledgement of governors' part in the leadership of schools by the extension of the remit of the National College for School Leadership into governor training. It is only to produce advice on recruiting and retaining headteachers, but it is a start.

The not such good news is the implication that perhaps governors could be a bit better. Those we have are certainly dedicated, but most are elected, and that is all a bit hazardous. Let us have ones appointed by an independent body so that schools can enjoy "an external sense of direction"

and draw on a wider range of expertise.

Enter, of course, the trust school, the latest manifestation of the Government's unshakeable belief in the superiority of the private sector over the public.

Anyone who has been following the story will remember that the last Education Act - in April - was going to give us foundation schools with predominantly appointed governing bodies. But strong opposition meant this part of the proposal was shelved.

It is now a key feature of the proposed trust schools. To get round the objection that governing bodies whose parent members are appointed, rather than elected, will not reflect the views of the parent body, we will have parent councils - compulsory for trusts but voluntary, though recommended, for other schools.

So six months ago legislation was passed encouraging all community secondary schools to become foundation, and this month the Government has just completed a consultation exercise on extending the same to primary schools, and is now going to introduce more legislation to encourage us to become trust schools.

A visiting Martian would look at our education system and marvel at the variety of school types: community, foundation, voluntary controlled, voluntary aided, special, academies, trusts, city technology colleges - and then riffs on all those with specialists (10 types), leading edge, training.

He would conclude that only the finest brains in the country could have produced such complexity. It is the Heinz beans system with 57 varieties.

There is going to be no compulsion on any governing body to change the status of its school, but the white paper is explicit there is to be a lot of encouragement, and a schools commissioner is to be appointed to promote the development of trust schools.

The hope must be that community and voluntary-controlled schools will wither on the vine. There will not be any new ones. All new schools, primary as well as secondary, will have to be trust, foundation, voluntary-aided or an academy.

There are assertions in the white paper that these schools are better than those we have, but no evidence. What will they enable governors to do that is different? They will be able to appoint their own heads and deputies free of local authority interference.

But we hear no clamour that selection panels are being finagled by the single local authority representative into appointing someone they do not want. On all other appointments the governing body is still expected to delegate to the headteacher. So not much change there.

Trusts, like foundation schools, can set their own admissions policies. If there is a freedom there, it is going to be a freedom to abuse, because all admissions authorities will be expected (though not compelled) to follow the forthcoming code of practice on admissions.

If you want a fair system you have to have quite a lot of central control, and, whatever the Government's detractors say, they are certainly not admitting that they want to produce the admissions free-for-all that giving schools real freedom would entail.

The much-heralded empowerment of parents means that all governing bodies, through parent councils or otherwise, are to have regard to parents' views.

New guidance will re-invigorate home-school agreements. Local authorities are to become parents' champions.

It is ironic, then, that parent power does not extend to choosing their own representatives in the preferred model of governing body. The Government wants to engage parents, but the white paper's subtext is that the best form of governing body is one made up of professionals.

Well, you did not expect consistency, did you?

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