Don't sell your body

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Beware the fashion for handing over the management of your school to a firm, says Jane Martin - only governors can run things in the public interest

Make no mistake - we stand at a critical moment in the governance of our schools.

The policy debate about increasing privatisation is about to take centre-stage and will already be exercising the minds of many governors. When governing bodies start to feature in prime minister's questions we will all take note. Before then, may I offer a few words of advice?

As governors you will want the best quality of provision - and many of you have already had experience of buying from private suppliers. Some of those experiences have been good, some not so good.

We should certainly be alert to the possibilities of public-private partnerships. But we should also be aware that there is a fundamental principle at stake - local democratic control of the public education system.

Governors are the public guardians of this system. The authority of the governing body is given by those who appoint and elect its members: parents, teachers, non-teaching staff, the local education authority, churches, local communities and businesses.

It is the duty of every governor to ensure that the public interest is at the heart of all deliberations. That public interest is best served by trying to ensure high-quality services and attracting any extra resources to improve provision - but not at the expense of losing local democratic governance.

The public interest will not be best served by handing over control of our schools to private firms. To use a business analogy, the public must remain the majority shareholders in any partnership - so it is the representatives of the public who monitor and scrutinise services in the public interest.

You might think you can best judge what is best for your school and your community now but you cannot guarantee the future for generations of children. Any partnerships you enter into now must preserve the fundamental principle of public rather than private ownership so governors in future have the same opportunities to steer the direction of the school as you have now.

Local democratic governance of education may often be messy and time-consuming, and things do go wrong. But it is established on the premise that local people are the ones who know the educational needs of their children best.

Each school has a representative forum called the governing body to ensure people's voices are heard. It's not perfect, it's not easy, but it's a much brighter prospect for the future than governing schools for profit.

So the dilemma means choosing between private and public interest. This is no time for governors who focus on short-term factional interests and profess to be "above politics". Hold public meetings - and talk to your "constituents".

In entering into public-private partnerships make sure you get the assurances you need and don't sign the life of the governing body away. But above all think of future generations and the public interest.

What do you think about private firms running schools? Email your views to karen.thornton@tes.co.uk or write to Karen Thornton, The TES, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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