Plans to have public-private partnerships running groups of schools may sideline governors, reports Anat Arkin
Labour's education action zones could give governors a new opportunity to help turn schools around. But they could just as easily spell the beginning of the end of a system that has given governors responsibility for the way schools are run.
The role of governors in the zones - to be run by public-private sector forums - is ambiguous. On the one hand, they will have to agree to their school becoming part of a zone. On the other, the forum will be able to take on some or most of their powers and could become, in effect, a super governing body for a group of schools.
The Department for Education and Employment's proposals stress that governing bodies will be able to use the forum in a variety of ways. But in its guidance on making a bid, the DFEE seems to favour a model where governors hand over most of their duties and powers to the forum.
The guidance notes speak of the importance of building a close relationship between individual school governing bodies and the forum, and list three ways to strengthen this relationship.
In the first and least radical option, each school in a zone would co-opt a member of the forum on to its governing body. Alternatively, governing bodies would either ask the forum to act as their agent in relation to one or more functions, or would formally cede most of their powers to the forum for the three to five-year lifetime of the zone.
Both the second and third options allow the zone to act as a federation of co-operating schools. But in a sign of where the DFEE's preferences lie, the notes say that the third option "achieves this more strongly" than the second.
Some of the local education authorities that have put in bids for zones have reassured governors that they will not be marginalised. For example, the south London borough of Lambeth, which has put in a joint bid with a commercial organisation, CfBT Education Services, has said governors would be represented on the zone forum and retain their existing powers.
Similarly, in Northamptonshire where the county hopes to bring 27 schools in Corby into an action zone, governors think it unlikely that they will be asked to cede their powers. Attracted by the prospect of working together to raise standards in all Corby schools, governing bodies will pool part of the decision-making process, says Jack Morrish, chair of the county's governors' association.
But there are doubts in some quarters as to whether power-sharing can work.
Kevin McNeany, chairman of Nord Anglia PLC, an educational services provider involved in several bids, argues that action zones will only be able to function effectively if governors delegate almost all power to the forum.
"Decision-making would be very difficult if the forum were obliged to reach a decision and then had to sell that idea and ensure unanimity across a range of up to 25 schools," he says.
Mr McNeany, who clearly has a commercial interest in the success of the zones, admits that some governing bodies might balk at this. But he believes others will decide that the advantages of the zones are likely to outweigh their disadvantages. "Local delegation of budgets and control hasn't really worked to an enormous extent because local authorities have been able to maintain considerable influence, if not control, over schools," he says.
"Action zones would give the governors, or those who stand in place of governors within the action zone forum, far more clout and there is far more likelihood that this group of people will be able to fight on behalf of the welfare and development of their schools than the governors of, say, one small primary school."
Margaret Riddell is a director of the Institution for School and College Governors and chair of governors of a school in Lewisham, London, which has put in a bid. She says some governors are concerned that once a zone is wound up, participating schools will no longer have people with experience of appointing heads and taking other key decisions.
Mrs Riddell identifies another group of governors who want nothing to do with action zones, particularly the proposals to change teachers' terms and conditions, which they believe would cause conflict in the staffroom.
Criticising the Government for rushing the zone initiative through, Mrs Riddell says: "We are doing all the other things that the Government wants us to do and here's another thing we have to look at and we haven't been consulted about it."
Dick Whitcutt, director of the charity Industry in Education says he knows of several companies that are interested in supporting zones locally. But he predicts that the first zones will all be partnerships between schools and LEAs or companies such as Nord Anglia or CfBT, which are already active in education.
"There are fears that with the timescale available for the first tranche and the need to negotiate delicately the willing participation of up to 20 schools, something really adventurous like an industry-led zone will not actually be possible," he says.
There may be plenty of opportunities for industry to take a lead in the future if action zones become permanent features of the education landscape.
With some government ministers indicating that the zones are a testbed for a completely new way of running the education service, zone forums -some of them led by hamburger chains or oil companies, perhaps - could eventually replace both local education authorities and school governing bodies in their present guise.
A-Z of zones
What are action zones?
Groups of around 20 primary, secondary and special schools working with local authorities, business and community groups.
Why are they being set up?
To encourage innovative approaches to raising standards in areas where schools need extra support.
How will they be funded?
Annual Government and private sector grants worth up to pound;500,000, the amount depending on the size of zone.
Zones will also have first call on many DFEE initiatives, including the specialist schools programme, early excellence centres and family literacy schemes.
How will this cash be used?
To employ a project director, improve information technology and attract high calibre teachers and heads. Governing bodies in action zones will be able to opt out of teachers' national pay and conditions.
How many zones will there be? Following the announcement of an extra pound;250 million for education in last week's Budget, there will be 25 zones by January 1999. By 2000 100 action zones are planned. There will be no action zones in Wales unless the new Welsh Assembly decides to introduce them.
What impact will they have on governors?
Governors will be able to hand over many or even most of their powers to the forum and take on an advisory role.