Fight for control of top task

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Local authorities are pushing for the right to veto governors' choice of headteacher, but Nigel Gann argues that governing bodies know best

When the local authority was appointing my successor as headteacher in a county secondary school in 1986, the school secretary had to send maps to enable three county councillors to find it. They had never visited the school before - and probably would never do so again. That they were there at all was only because an education minister had ordered them to be. They had initially refused to work with the three nominated governors because one of them was a teacher governor.

Perhaps this tokenism did not matter so much, because the role of the professionals - senior officers from County Hall - in headship appointments was crucial. As often as not, the chief education officer saw the appointment of heads as one of his most important jobs. Stewart Mason, for example, Leicestershire's director of education for 24 years after the war, thought the critical thing was "to get the right chap picked".

The way heads were picked by such officers was often idiosyncratic and - as the language betrays - would be unlikely to meet today's equal opportunity requirements. Mason's interview technique became the subject of fascinated exchanges between members and officers.

He would ask what piece of music you would have on a desert island or what made you cry. He would not necessarily be looking for specific headship skills. He would more likely be impressed by candidates with an appreciation of the arts, and those who were liberal in a general sense. The picking done, the maximum amount of responsibility would be delegated. ("The headmaster is the captain of the ship and must be accorded the authority which such a responsibility entails.").

So until the late 1980s, some officers held enormous influence over appointments. But the ultimate decision rested with council members and, latterly, with governors as they were granted more powers.

The 1986 Act formalised this arrangement, requiring selection panels to include governors. The Education Reform Act of 1988, however, passed the sole responsibility for choosing the head to the governing body.

The chief education officer, or a representative, is entitled to be present to advise the governors' panel, but the advice may be taken or not. It is the governors' decision.

On the whole, this arrangement seems to have worked well for nearly 10 years. Many officers and inspectors have resisted governor power, and have wanted to retain control over the appointment process. This may be because some officers believe that governors are inclined to go for the easy option of appointing the internal candidate. This may well be more likely to happen (in Mason's Leicestershire, internal candidates for headship were disallowed), but perhaps governors are more sensitive to protecting the ethos of a school.

As Dilum Jirasinghe and Geoffrey Lyons suggest in their book, The Competent Head (Falmer Press, 1996), effective job performance comprises three elements - the individual's competence, the demands of the job and the organisational environment.

An individual may have all the skills required for headship, and be perfectly competent in all areas of the job description. But each school is unique, serving a unique community with discreet expectations and aspirations.

While outside advisers may be highly experienced in identifying the first two elements in a candidate, only the governors can specify the organisational demands that the appointment must meet. It is these elements, identified in the person specification that the governing body draws up - preferably after extensive consultation with staff, parents and officers - which must govern the selection process.

A skilled professional advising an ill-prepared and uncertain governing body can, of course, make sure that the authority's candidate is appointed. But the legislation is quite clear: the head is chosen by the governing body.

Recently, there has been some indication that local education authorities are prepared to challenge this arrangement. Whether this is due to the number of new unitary authorities that are unaccustomed to sharing power with governing bodies, to the smaller size of many authorities since reorganisation (smaller authorities being better placed to interfere directly with schools), or to the heady euphoria in Labour-run LEAs since last May, is impossible to say. Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that some councils are taking a much greater interest in appointments generally, but especially of headteachers. In one case, at least, a school has been threatened with a complaint to the Secretary of State that its governing body acted unreasonably in not taking the advice of officers.

As Joan Sallis has recently made clear in her Agenda column (TES, November 28), no LEA could sustain such a complaint. David Blunkett would have to undermine not only all the relevant legislation since 1988, but also his own White Paper, which says: "An LEA should not decide on the appointment of a head; that is plainly and properly a responsibility of the governing body".

The current Education Bill will allow councillors to write formally to governors asking them to reconsider in the event of their choosing against officers' advice, but that is all.

Nevertheless, local authority leaders are fighting back. They will be sponsoring an amendment to the Bill which would allow them to veto appointments or approve shortlists of candidates. What are they afraid of?

Most governors would agree that choosing a head is the single most important executive task they ever have. The advent of the compulsory National Professional Qualification for Headteachers will, in theory at least, ensure that all candidates have the skills to do the job. The job of governors is to decide, from a group of competent potential heads, which is the right one for their school. Who will also bring to the school the culture that the governors want to protect or develop?

American writer E H Schein suggests that the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage "culture". It is the governing body that defines and manages the culture of a school through its policies and procedures, its planning, monitoring and evaluation of results, and its target setting. It is only the governing body that can choose the right person to bring about the school they want.

Nigel Gann is an education consultant and author of Improving School Governance, published recently by Falmer Press

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