Hold on to your rights

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Did you know that governing bodies in foundation schools will be largely selected not elected? asks Stephen Adamson

Opponents of GM crops oppose them for two reasons: one, they don't think they are good for us, and, two, they spread their genes into other plants and change them irrevocably. Likewise, opponents of GM schools also thought they weren't good for us. And now they can see that these too, after a long dormancy, have the power of transgenic mutation.

Of course, grant-maintained schools are no longer with us. They were abolished by the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act - not destroyed entirely, but changed into foundation schools. Direct funding went and the local education authority was given some influence but little power over them, but many features remained.

From 1998 up to this summer officials did not promote foundation schools as somehow superior to community schools. But now the Government's five-year strategy offers foundation status as a superior state for all secondary schools, and a recently published consultation (Consultation on Proposals for Foundation Schools at www.governornet.co.uk) sings the "benefits of foundation status" and describes how it is to be made easier for schools to achieve it.

Why is foundation status suddenly being pushed? According to the consultation a foundation school can take formal ownership of its assets, become the direct employer of its own staff, become its own admission authority and be able to publish proposals for other changes. Governors and headteachers might wonder quite what extra "freedoms" they gain in the first two: the first being a potential burden and the second only a marginal change in practice. So your freedom becomes one of having more say in the kinds of pupils who are admitted to the school and being able to make changes to the school that currently you would have to get the LEA to agree to.

It is a sad day for democracy when a government decides that voting is a bad thing. But foundation status will largely replace election with selection. Governing bodies in community schools represent the four stakeholder groups: parents, staff, the community and the LEA. Parents elect those who serve in their name, staff likewise (apart from the head), and these two elected groups form the majority on the board. LEA governors are appointed, but they are at least appointed by an elected body. Only the community governors are not elected in any way.

But the new foundation schools could sweep much of this away. Staff would still vote for their representatives (as now, between two and one third of the governing body), but there would be no obligation to have more than one elected parent governor, and even they might be appointed by the governing body. Parents would still constitute at least a third of the governing body, but the rest of the parent governors would be appointed by the foundation. This foundation would also appoint a number of other governors, entirely of its choosing, in sufficient numbers to ensure that foundation governors constituted a majority of up to two on the governing body. And as a bonus you would be able to have up to four sponsor governors, instead of two.

So where is the principle of accountability to the local community in this consultation? The foundation, which can be an existing charity, a group of schools, or a body specially set up for the purpose, would decide who made the strategic decisions for the school. The school would still be accountable to the parents on the governing body, but parents would not have chosen them. They would have been chosen on their behalf.

Perhaps this does not matter. Foundation governing bodies can be very effective. Perhaps if the governors are nearly all hand-picked they will be even better, lots of professionals advising the school for free. But "the end justifies the means" is a dangerous philosophy. Maybe it would be better to try to strengthen local democracy in schools. Otherwise we might get schools that the politicians want, but not the people who near them and who send their children to them.

Governors will decide whether to go foundation, but they should not expect the game to be played quite according to the current rules. It is the Government's aim that nearly all secondary schools will become foundation.

As with specialist status it is up to each governing body to decide what to do, and over time most secondary schools have made this move. Have governors decided that specialist status is better than being generalist, or could it be something to do with financial incentives?

Respond to the consultation. Remember - when you have signed away your democratic rights, is the body you have given them to likely to give them back?

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