Failing? It's news to us

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Labour has been quick to tackle failing schools. But governors often do not know their school is in difficulty until it's too late, reports Bob Doe. However, some authorities are taking steps to raise awareness, as Mark Whitehead discovers (below).

The Government's plans to get tough with failing schools amount, in effect, to the sacking of governing bodies, but as yet they include no new measures to support governors dealing with inadequate school management.

Ministers this week were threatening to send in teams to take over the governance of failing schools showing insufficient progress, in an early demonstration of Labour's "zero tolerance of underperformance".

In its manifesto Labour promised a "fresh start" to schools not improving; to "close the school and start afresh on the same site". Alternatively, good schools nearby - and presumably their governing bodies - would be allowed to take over bad ones to set them on a new path.

Both these measures are likely to require a new Act of Parliament, however, so in the meantime Labour's new minister for school standards, Stephen Byers, is contemplating using the Conservatives' education associations - or "hit squads" - to take over the management and governance of schools not improving quickly enough.

So far 307 schools have been identified by the Office for Standards in Education as failing (2 per cent of the schools inspected); 28 have improved sufficiently to be removed from the special measures register; and 11 have been closed. But 41 have been on the failing list for two years or more.

The governors of failing schools have 40 days to draw up a satisfactory action plan to deal with their schools' shortcomings. Governors also have to deal with the shock to teacher morale of being publicly identified as failing and with any subsequent staff changes, voluntary or compulsory. About half of the schools failing replaced their headteacher. As things stand, it will be governors who will have to operate the new "speedy but fair" measures promised by Labour to remove teachers who are not up to the job.

If the Secretary of State does not accept the action plan, or the school is too slow to improve, he can appoint a new team to take over the running of the school. This team can also recommend closure.

This has happened only once so far: Gillian Shephard appointed an education association to run Hackney Downs school after the local authority first recommended closure and then changed its mind against the advice of its education officer, Gus John.

But research (The TES, April 18) has shown most governing bodies of failing schools are unaware of their school's underperformance until it is pointed out by OFSTED inspectors. The chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has said that many governing bodies are not performing one of their most important functions: monitoring performance and questioning standards.

But governors find it difficult to make fair judgments about their schools' achievements in comparison with other, similar schools. And in the absence of information or support from the local authority, many rely too much on the reassurances of the headteacher.

School inspectors, in addition to their greater experience of other schools, often have comparative information on performance not made available to governors by the local authority. The same is true when it comes to comparing value for money.

Some local authorities are providing governors with such information (see below). But governors may well need more training and support in monitoring and evaluation as well as information if they are to challenge complacency and raise expectations. Some governors also want training to be compulsory, stronger legal entitlements to time off work for governing duties, and support for child care to enable them to do an increasingly demanding job.

Though the new Government has promised to increase the numbers of parent governors - and the responsibilities they will carry - it has said nothing about giving governors the support that would enable them to hold their school managements to account.

When it comes to improving teacher performance, Labour's manifesto recognises the importance of pressure and support; in the case of governors it seems to be promising only to increase the demands made on them.

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