Plans to allow parents voting rights in local authority meetings have stirred up a hornet's nest. Mark Whitehead reports
Partnership is a key word in the Government's attitude to education. But school governors are asking what it means when, despite the fact that they have heavy responsibilities for running their schools, they have no voice on local authority education committees.
The anomaly is about to become even more obvious. The Education Bill now going through Parliament will give parents the right to elect full voting members onto education committees. Yet governors, whose powers and responsibilities will be increased by the legislation, will still be given no representation.
Local management of schools means governors control the overwhelmingly biggest share of local authority cash going into education. They have huge legal responsibilities as the people who, ultimately, are answerable for the employment of staff and the way schools are run.
But they have no right to a say in the policies decided by their local authorities in such vital areas as admissions, funding arrangements and school organisation.
The Education Standards and Framework Bill puts a new duty on school governing bodies for promoting high standards and makes them responsible for the targets - seen by the Government as a key to its aim of raising standards - all schools will be required to draw up from September.
Parents in each local authority area will be given the right to elect full voting members onto education committees, although it is unclear as yet how this will work. But a school governor will remain, under the law, no more important than any other elector when it comes to deciding education policies.
Some local authorities already have governor representatives on their education committees as non-voting members, but, despite the Government's talk of partnership and the local education authority acting as a consultative focus for its "family of schools", there is no requirement for them to do so.
According to the Department for Education and Employment, the Government has decided to give parents pride of place because they are seen as the "consumers of the education service". But that begs the question of who exactly the providers are. The answer appears to be that, despite the talk of partnership, the Government regards the local authority as responsible for education.
"It is a ludicrous situation," says Pat Petch chairman of the National Governors' Council. "School governing bodies have legal responsibilities mirroring those of the local authority and there is supposed to be a partnership. But I do not see how we can work together if we're not there when the decisions are being made."
The requirement on local authorities to create education development plans for their areas will increase the need for consultation. Here again, the NGC believes giving governors places on education committees would not only be fair but would speed up consultation.
Further questions arise about how parent representatives will be elected. In many areas governors have well-organised local networks, many affiliated to the NGC. But parents' organisations are usually nowhere near as developed. It is very unclear how parent representatives on education committees will be accountable to their electorate.
The bizarre situation in which parents - who have an obvious interest in education policy, but no formal legal responsibilities for it - will have representation, but governors will not, is illustrated graphically in Education Secretary David Blunkett's home city, Sheffield. The city council is about to carry out a major slimming-down exercise which will halve the number of councillors and eliminate many sub-committees and working groups.
As the Education Bill currently stands, at least one parent from Sheffield's schools will have a full voting place by right on the education committee. But there will be no place for a governor, despite the fact that the city has a fully-functioning governors' forum. Sheffield is putting into place a consultation system in which governors will have input into a councillors' policy panel, but is not required to do so.
Sandra Tomlinson, chair of governors at one of Sheffield's biggest comprehensive schools and of the city's association of governing bodies, says: "My school has a budget of pound;3.3 million.
"The head and senior management put the policies to us but in the end we are responsible for what the school does. But there is going to be no representation for governors."
The NGC wants the Government to think again and amend the Bill to provide some representation for governors.
"The current situation doesn't reflect the reality of the job we do," says Mrs Petch. "Surely the time has come to give us some representation. Otherwise it is like saying we can have all this responsibility but we won't be listened to."