Forums: the way forward;Briefing;Governors

8th May 1998 at 01:00
The draft code of practice on the relationship between local education authorities and schools calls for a new cooperation. Alan Parker and Pat Petch report on a possible solution

The Government's proposed new code of practice envisages a constructive relationship between local authorities and governing bodies. How is this to be achieved?

Legislation currently before Parliament has allocated them separate roles and responsibilities for strategic management and funding. The School Standards and Framework Bill adds duties for target-setting and promoting high standards to each of them separately.

While the code recognises that authorities and schools will not always see eye to eye on the best way to secure improvement, if both sides operate independently of each other there is the potential for considerable tension.

On the one hand, schools have an expectation of substantial autonomy. The code restates the principle of school self-management, making it clear that intervention should be in inverse proportion to success. On the other hand, the Bill places on local authorities a duty to carry out their functions with a view to raising standards, and ministers are saying that this will sometimes require and justify an increased level of contact and intervention in schools.

Moreover, the code sees the role of the authority as both supportive and robustly challenging when needed. Yet, unless the relationship is right, such support may be viewed as interference, and a robust challenge resented as unwarranted intervention.

While the code acknowledges a leadership role for the local authority, there is also a clear expectation that leadership will operate within a partnership based on mutual agreement. Clearly, the ambitious targets for improvement set by the Government will not be met without the wholehearted support and commitment of both parties.

Complementary functions will challenge traditional thinking. We will need jointly to link up structures and ways of working in effective partnerships, allowing individual flexibility within co-operation.

One body promoting such an approach is the National Governors Council (NGC), a federated body of independent local associations of governing bodies based on a large and growing number of local authority areas. The White Paper Excellence in Schools exhorted authorities to promote the formation of independent organisations where they do not already exist.

Ealing is currently being assisted by the NGC to help a group of governors set up such an organisation. We hope to enhance governors' capacity to act collectively to support each other, to develop views on policy and to express them to the authority. Communication and mutual understanding between the authority and its schools will increase, as will the quality of support achieved by the authority.

We also expect that the confidence and capacity of governing bodies will be extended and that they will operate more effectively. If this does, in Chris Woodhead's terms help schools "stand on their own two feet", it will not render the local authority superfluous. We hope through partnership to deploy authority resources in ways that are guided, understood and valued by schools. We are now facing the re-integration of grant-maintained and authority schools into a common frame-work of local management of schools (LMS). There is a considerable degree of consensus over which elements of funding should be delegated to schools, leaving a relatively restricted list of functions which could be controlled by either, or split. But there are great anxieties about how - and by whom - decisions about that list will be made.

While most schools are reasonably comfortable with delegation so far, most would like to discuss the appropriate level. This is particularly true as we seek to resolve the question of convergence; but it will also be necessary in the long term, to keep the right balance of delegation as schools' needs change. However, in the absence of partnership structures, creating a debate which will lead to consensus is extremely difficult.

Such is the need to create a new framework, that a government-imposed solution is likely, possibly involving a prescribed split of functions with no flexibility for local debate or decision-making. The danger is that there would be no possibility of future refinement except by national edict, with consequent turbulence and disruption each time. Maybe the solution is to be found in establishing a process for serious local debate, taking account of the different starting positions of all schools.

Recently, the Audit Commission's paper Changing Partners promoted the idea that the future lies in effective relationships, mutual respect and common values. But the Government itself has done little to promote the idea of local governor forums. Yet this way of promoting positive partnerships between authorities and governing bodies could be crucial to the success of Labour's agenda.

Alan Parker is chief education officer of Ealing. Pat Petch is chair of the National Governors' Council

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