Freedom to branch out and think big

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Deregulation is the order of the day. Jane Martin looks at what this really means for governors

The Education Act 2002 has paved the way for a more diverse system. It is permissive legislation which allows schools to deregulate their governance arrangements and opens up the possibilities for a more "mixed economy" of schooling, particularly for secondaries.

Governing bodies are at the heart of any new developments. Never has the responsibility of "public trusteeship" been so significant for governors involved in key decisions affecting the future direction of schools.

Effectively, schools are being allowed the same freedoms for governance and management as have been granted to local authorities. The latter are now permitted by legislation, and encouraged in practice, to ensure the provision of high-quality public services rather than limiting themselves to the delivery of services. To do this, they are forging strategic and operational partnerships across traditional boundaries with public, private and voluntary service providers.

These innovative but complex arrangements also require new forms of governance which continue to ensure public accountability. The Education Act allows for federations of governing bodies where schools are working effectively as one, and boards will have new powers to form companies or to provide community facilities. The size and composition of governing bodies may be varied within certain parameters. The legislation, in short, makes it easier for schools to diversify and form new partnerships as well.

Many governors will already have experience of specialist status and other initiatives, while many others will be considering new ways of working. But how will you decide how much your school needs to diversify? How will diversification help the pupils? And how will you know that the governance and management of any new partnership or federation will meet the needs of future pupils and their families?

What is your school for? Who does it serve? How do you define an effective school and education? These are big questions which need big thinking and imaginative answers. Governors should recognise that schools are only autonomous within a local system of education.

The autonomous school - seemingly promoted in the new legislation - is both a reality and a chimera when viewed from the perspective of a locally-administered system of education catering for the needs of all pupils in a local area.

With 20-plus years of local management, schools have developed their own distinctive ethos and strengths. The question now is how best to build on those strengths to meet the needs of the school community (however that is defined) while also complementing and contributing to a local education system. How much and what sort of diversity is a good thing?

The Education Act provides a great opportunity for governors to "think outside the box". The shackles are off and schools can develop and collaborate to offer the best possible education to pupils. This sets the scene for schools to think about the best provision.

They might link into community regeneration with a more holistic approach to educating the community, the family and the child, or perhaps widen the curriculum in collaboration with neighbouring schools, colleges or universities. Or maybe you see your school as the natural local learning centre, making use of information technology and giving wider access to public services.

At the same time, governing bodies should be aware of local plans and priorities and should involve themselves in community planning and strategic partnership boards, particularly governors who are also local councillors.

Schools and the local authority are inter-dependent and a diverse system of schooling will only meet the needs of all pupils and help to promote "community well-being" when a common vision and shared agreements can be encouraged within systems which ensure democratic accountability.

* This piece appears by kind permission of Adamson Books, which publishes the School Governors' Yearbook 2003.

For more information on the issues raised here, including case study examples, see "Governing Education for Community Regeneration" by Liz Allen and Jane Martin, published by The New Local Government Network, tel: 020 7357 0051 or email network@nlgn.org.uk

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