Invasion of the fact-snatchers;Briefing;Governors

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Tony Mooney considers business ethics for school governors, and decides that the Government's insistence upon a register of interests will be a gross breach of his privacy

Over the past 25 years I have given up hun-dreds of hours of my leisure time to be a school governor. Although the work has been time-consuming and sometimes arduous I have never begrudged taking part in this unpaid voluntary activity.

I have built up a wealth of experience as a governor and thought that I still had much to offer our local schools. Unfortunately, a small section of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 - Schedule 14 -looks set to bring a premature end to my tenure as a school governor, since I am not prepared to comply with the new legislation.

My problems will begin after December 31, because by then all school governing bodies will have to compile a register of the business interests of members and those of the headteacher.

Not only will governors have to supply information about themselves, but they will also have to divulge information about the business interests of "any member of their immediate family". The register will need to be "made available for inspection by governors, staff and parents".

These new registers, says a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment, are part of the new Fair Funding arrangements whereby schools will have a greater degree of budgetary delegation, and can purchase more services for themselves.

It is felt that the introduction of business registers for schools will act as a safeguard against allegations of impropriety.

Business registers for governors have been in existence in grant-maintained schools for a number of years and were referred to in the Rainbow Pack supplied by the Funding Agency for these schools. The content of the business ethics section was clearly influenced by the Nolan Committee's 1996 report on standards in public life. It emphasises that governors must declare all "business interests such as directorships, share holdings and other appointments of influence within a business or other organisation which may have dealings with the school".

I believe this new legislation to be a gross invasion of the privacy of people who want to serve their local community as school governors. These people will have to parade, for all to see, business interests that they may not wish the wider public to know about. They will also have to hold discussions with members of their family to ask them to allow the disclosure of some of their business interests that might conceivably impact upon the school.

Take, for instance, a governor who has an interest in a local window-cleaning firm. Although the firm might not be cleaning the school's windows at the time the register is being compiled, the interest would need to be declared because when the contract comes up for renewal the firm might wish to make a bid for the work.

It is my belief that governors should only have to declare their business interests if and when those interests impact upon the school. When that is the case, the governor should make the declaration at the relevant meeting where it is recorded in the minutes. The governor then takes no further part in the debate and does not enter any other meeting on that subject.

Some well-respected people have no problem accepting the new registers and agree that declarations of interest if and when the need arises do not go far enough.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, says: " I don't think the registers are unreasonable. They will be helpful to headteachers in preventing them from falling into the trap of showing favouritism."

My own straw poll of some governors in Islington has found universal disapproval of the registers. "A sledgehammer to crack the parliamentary sleaze nut," said one. He believes that compilation of the registers will be counter-productive and make new governors even harder to find, particularly those from the business community.

The DFEE spokeswoman disagrees. She says that there have been a few complaints about the register "but nothing on a scale that would suggest that governor recruitment is likely to be affected. The register requirements have been working effectively in GM schools, and have not led to a shortage of governors."

The punishment for those who refuse to disclose details of their business interests is being discussed by the DFEE. However, banishment looks on the cards since the DFEE spokeswoman says: "A refusal by a complete governing body to create a register could be grounds for suspending the school's right to a delegated budget."

If the new legislation is implemented as planned, then all the knowledge I have accumulated as a governor will no longer be available to any of our local schools. There will be others like me who feel that the prying eye of local communities into their business affairs is too large a price to pay to become involved in a time-consuming voluntary activity.

I do not think that our schools are so well off for governors that we can risk following the letter of the law on this occasion.

Tony Mooney is chair of governors, Highbury Fields school, Islington, north London. The views expressed here are his own.

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