Hard decisions

27th September 1996 at 01:00
In the second in our series on the powers and responsibilities of governors, Joan Sallis says that they must be able to take unpopular action. Any proper exercise of governors' powers from time to time provokes a clamour for those powers to be redefined or taken away. The uproar over the reinstatement of a disruptive pupil is such a case.

Most often such demands come from heads, sometimes from teachers, occasionally from local authorities. They don't prove that governors' powers are unclear, or that they have been abused or that they are excessive. They merely show that when a decision in a painful and complex matter isn't liked by all concerned, somebody will blame it on the governors.

It isn't all that long since I was writing this about Hackney in the case of Jane Brown and the Romeo and Juliet tickets. Her governors, you recall, quite legally said that their head had perhaps made an injudicious remark but that she was a wonderful head running a fine school, respected and liked by staff, parents and pupils, and that the matter was closed. They behaved properly as well as humanely and with the interests of the school at heart. Their responsible judgment has since been vindicated by OFSTED. But some people wanted a witch-hunt and claimed that governors had no right to deny them one.

Nearly all governors have immense sympathy for today's teachers, especially in disciplinary matters. They know that teachers have to cope with some young people who are living lives without joy or order or hope. It is not a mystery why they behave so badly, but amazing that they don't behave much worse. Teachers, torn between compassion for the individual and duty to the majority, know that the individual needs time they don't have. They would like to help those who put themselves outside any systems of sanction or reward that you can devise and seem to say "Go on, do what you like to me."

But with over-large classes, often months to wait for an appointment with an educational psychologist, referral units grossly inadequate in capacity, and parents often unwilling or unable to support, they have to give way to those whose well-behaved children deserve a chance to learn too. Nor can I blame parents in under-funded schools for their anger when they see scarce resources used to keep disruptive pupils there.

Governors find exclusion cases stressful, many come out of meetings having confirmed a permanent exclusion with heavy hearts. They also know that if they let their doubts show they could in a moment have destroyed relationships patiently built and nurtured. They sense the raw feelings of teachers which defy rational argument. But they are uneasy. If someone wanted to take this particular chalice from governors (along with headteachers' pay) I don't think I'd get on my soap-box about it. But I would certainly fight for the existence of other and perhaps more effective checks on the school's power which teachers wouldn't like any better.

But governors' powers are not the issue. It is the increasing reluctance of people to accept decisions honestly and legally arrived at if they don't like them that frightens me. I have been concerned that on the few occasions when governors have legally reversed an exclusion in a high-profile case, teachers have refused to teach the reinstated pupils. We are all having the wrong discussion.

Or more likely no discussion at all. The parents who recently tried to take the law into their own hands had clearly little knowledge of the issues - this emerged from some of the media interviews. Schools now invariably make parents welcome. But making them feel needed is very different and a lot harder. I think it is rare for a school to be able to share everything, good and bad, with its parents - or even its governors. The competitive climate engendered by the government doesn't help.

Yet one of the most important things one learns in life is that people respond well to being included, and that contentious matters are far better discussed within a structure than in clamour and confusion, whether it's in the staffroom or at the gate. The governing bodies suggested by the Taylor committee were an attempt to bring all the partners into a representative stucture where their conflicting interests could be debated, but it will only work when different groups are in close touch with their representatives.

Many heads now clamour to be released from the restraints which the law puts upon their freedom of action. These freedom-fighters have forgotten how much more power schools have acquired in the past 10 years. Gone are the days when the LEA determined the pupil-teacher ratio, and thus the staffing complement and structure; when the only money to be allocated within a school was for classroom consumables; when the LEA had a major role in senior appointments, staff discipline and the curriculum. The blank cheque now given to a school even allows it considerable discretion in how much local monitoring and surveillance of its performance it accepts.

Does anyone think that such power is going to be given in any sane society to one person? Or that there will be no independent inquiry or redress for an individual in conflict with the institution?

Few wish to back-track on the self-management of schools. But many hope to see the restoration of local authority powers: to plan for schools, to see fair play between schools, to offer support and to settle disputes, roles which the market-place is unsuited.

But if any head - or for that matter Cherie Booth in these columns recently - is looking back through a golden haze to a time when all local authorities were paragons of virtue, generous providers, tolerant of dissent, well equipped to take all that power back from the governors and use it better, think again. First, it is at least on the cards that the power would be picked up by the centre instead. Second, local authorities were not all like that. A long spell with one party in government has put most local authorities in healthy opposition. This happens whatever the government of the day and if we have a government of a different colour, local electorates will in time swing to counter-balance.

Safer, perhaps to keep a lot of the debate within the school.

Joan Sallis is national president of the Campaign for State Education. CASE has just published a policy paper on new structures of democracy at all levels in education. Their Schools Or Ours is free, but please send an sae and a donation if you can, to CASE, 158 Durham Road, London SW20 ODG.

u Contributions to this debate on the powers and responsibilities of governors should be sent to Bob Doe, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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