'More robust line' with public urged

24th May 1996 at 01:00
The response from grant-maintained schools to Lord Nolan's latest push for more openness might have come straight from the lips of TV civil servant Sir Humphrey. They are in favour of a more open approach "up to a point".

Speaking for the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee (GMSAC), which gave evidence to the committee, Cecil Knight said: "I agree with the principle that governors' meetings should be more open."

But Mr Knight, chair of GMSAC and head of Small Heath school in Birmingham, added: "It would not be fair if they were turned into some kind of public inquisition of governors by people who may be hostile to the school." Lord Nolan's reply is that if you are going to be open to public scrutiny, you have to take the rough with the smooth. "They need to take a more robust line, " he told The TES after launching the report.

Grant-maintained schools, colleges of further and higher education, training and enterprise councils and housing associations were put under the spotlight in Lord Nolan's latest report published last week after quangos and NHS trusts were given the treatment last year following the parliamentary cash-for-questions row two years ago.

On the whole, said the Nolan committee, they have made progress since the first report, with measures such as the "Framework for Local Accountability" introduced by the TECs' national council. But there is still some way to go along the path of open government.

The committee recommends establishing codes of practice on "whistleblowing" so that employees can voice concerns about malpractice without suffering victimisation, and warns against the use of "gagging clauses" aimed at stifling dissent.

The question to be resolved as Nolan's recommendations go through the parliamentary process and are put into practice, is how far those running the GM schools, TECs and colleges will be prepared to go with him.

The basic principle spelled out in the report is that bodies paid for out of public money should be accountable to the community they serve. Basic measures include making agendas and minutes of governing-body meetings widely available, publicising forthcoming meetings and summarising decisions in newsletters. An annual public meeting should be held and consultation bodies should be set up for important interest groups.

The TECs, existing in a twilight world as limited companies operating entirely on public money, are basking in a warm feeling of approval after a pat on the back by Nolan for their framework on accountability.

All TECs, said Chris Humphries of the TEC national council, now have open procedures for selecting directors and well-publicised complaints procedures, for example, and all hold an annual meeting open to the press and public. But individual TECs are left to decide exactly what sort of codes to adopt and how to implement them.

Mr Humphries dismisses the suggestion that, to a junior employee or a member of the public, the process of understanding how such procedures work and then successfully taking advantage of them may prove impossibly complex.

The real problem area may be further and higher education, which suffered a series of damaging episodes involving alleged corruption in colleges last year. NATFHE, the college lecturers' union, welcomed Nolan's recommendations as "a significant contribution in tilting the balance towards greater accountability".

But Nolan had failed, said the union, to bring back broad representation of the community largely lost when further and higher education colleges left the control of local authorities.

The comment points to the question at the heart of the debate. Nolan describes in the report's first sentence how the new kind of institutions he has been concerned with are run by bodies that are "rarely elected and whose members are not appointed by the Government".

Many fear that the semi-independent institutions set up in recent years are inherently insensitive to the views of the local community.

Lord Nolan sees his recommendations as a strong nudge towards greater openness and accountability. "There has to be room for exercising judgment," he says. "But they should be as open as possible."

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