Recent legal battles between heads, governors and education authorities mask a deeper conflict. Governors resent plans to give heads more autonomy, while LEAs also want to exert influence. So who should call the shots? Julie Henry and Karen Thornton report
DISPUTES between heads, governors and education authorities will reach the country's highest courts this week.
The spate of legal cases comes at a sensitive time: the Government is poised to tilt the balance of power in favour of heads, a move that could trigger a wider power struggle as education authorities and governors seek to protect their roles.
A government consultation document proposes that heads take key decisions on staffing, dismissal and grievance issues. But governors are fighting hard to retain their role in personnel matters.
Meanwhile, education authorities must pick up the bill when heads challenge governor decisions at tribunals - a fact that has led them to seek to pull the strings behind the scenes in school disputes.
The Government's plans to give the headteachers of successful schools more powers to determine pay and conditions, and make changes to the curriculum, could lead to further disputes if not handled carefully.
On Monday, Welsh head Marjorie Evans is expecting a High Court ruling on whether governors have the right to block her return to school. She had hoped to resume her headship at St Mary's junior school, Caldicot, Monmouthshire, last September after an appeal court overturned her conviction for slapping a 10-year-old pupil.
But when further allegations about pupil mistreatment emerged, the local authority urged governors to suspend her and take disciplinary action. The bitter 18-month saga has highlighted the governing body's dependence on advice from the local education authority.
Andrew Green, representing Mrs Evans, told Cardiff High Court: "Strings are being pulled elsewhere and the governors dance to the tune being played."
Meanwhile, as The TES went to press, Anthony McNally - a teacher at Woodhey secondary in Manchester - was still awaiting the outcome of a Court of Appeal hearing. He has been suspended on full pay for six years after allegations that he abused a 15-year-old pupil.
A police inquiry and two governing body disciplinary hearings found no evidence to support the charges but Bury education authority asked the Government to order a third governors' hearing. Education Secretary David Blunkett's agreement has been challenged in court by Mr McNally's union.
As staff grow increasingly willing to sue, and anti-discrimination legislation is tightened up, more court battles seem likely.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said the risk of lawsuits meant governors were increasingly being forced to do what the LEA told them. Those who refused to take LEA advice if staff did sue could be left footing the bill if they lost the case.
"The whole situation needs to be sorted out fairly urgently. There needs to be root-and-branch revision of the role ofthe LEA as quasi-employer," he said.
The National Association of Governors and Managers and the Local Government Association said the Department for Education and Employment consultation on governors' future role had failed to address key questions about their responsibilities and their relationship with heads and LEAs. John Adams, NAGM chairman, said: "You are always going to get hard cases, such as Marjorie Evans's, and no amount of redrafting guidance is going to sort that out. It's certainly our view that the reduction in LEA roles has made these issues much more problematic."
Mike Richardson, chair of Lambeth Governors' Forum, said: "If you have heads that want to work in isolation, ineffectual governors and unsupportive LEAs, it doesn't matter what framework you have, you are going to have tensions. That is not to say the framework cannot be improved, but I am not certain the current government consultation is going to do it."
Heads don't want LEAs to be abolished. A DFEE poll found only 5 per cent wanted rid of LEAs, although most felt they could be improved.
LEAs are said to be best placed to provide for excluded pupils, according to 86 per cent of heads, home-school transport (89 per cent), services for pupils with difficult special needs (68 per cent), and admissions and school places (77 per cent).
Secondary and special school heads wanted more independence than their primary colleagues, with nearly two-thirds and 49 per cent respectively wanting more money and responsibilities delegated to them, according to the poll.
But a survey by NAGM found that nearly half of governors (46.7 per cent) were unhappy about leaving staff grievances to heads, as proposed by the DFEE.
And nearly three-quarters wanted to keep responsibilities for recruiting staff, despite many heads' belief that filling vacancies should be left to them.
THE COST OF CONFLICT
The total bill for costs associated with the Marjorie Evans, Rebekah Marshall and Anthony McNally actions is heading towards half a million pounds.
* In the Marjorie Evans case solicitors' fees, three days in the High Court with barristers and the cost of paying an acting-head to cover for 18 months add up to about pound;100,000.
* Legal fees in the Rebekah Marshall case (see page 7), plus employment tribunal costs and the extra costs of an acting head are estimated at about pound;40,000. This could be doubled if the suspension drags on and the case goes back to tribunal.
* The McNally case cost an estimated pound;250,000, including his pay for six years, a judicial review, High Court and Court of Appeal costs, and the costs for unions and his LEA of instructing lawyers.
* The National Union of Teachers sets aside more than pound;500,000 a year to fight legal battles on behalf of members.
* Last year the National Association of Head Teachers spent pound;432,000 on legal representations.
* It is estimated that local authorities spend about pound;30m a year on legal fees, employment tribunals and wages for teachers and heads suspended in disputes.