Problems of going hybrid

18th May 2001 at 01:00
A joint prospectus and governors' report could be wasteful, writes Jane Martin.

Have you responded to the Department for Education and Employment's consultation on the governors' annual report? Did you even know about it?

The proposal is to remove the obligation on the governing body to produce an annual report to parents as well as an annual school prospectus and have one document which incorporates both. Schools already have the option to do this.

The consultation does not propose removing the statutory duty to report to parents annually, but does review and reduce the reporting requirements.

Most of you are probably heaving a collective sigh of relief and will rush off your electronic questionnaire firmly in favour of the change. But there are important issues here to consider.

One of the messages coming loud and clear from the recent consultation on school governance was the need for the Government to stop subjecting governors to ad hoc legislation.

But this is different, I hear you cry, it's the Government responding to the grassroots. Most of us are fed up with producing a report that nobody seems to want.

But this particular piece of political expediency doesn't actually remove the need to produce a report. It proposes a report and a prospectus in one. In fact this arguably makes life more difficult rather than less. When will you produce this hybrid, and how?

Many prospectuses have developed into glossy brochures with high production costs. The information needs to be updated every year and distributed to all parents - so schools may well be sending out more paper to parents. And will they appreciate it?

It is certainly the case that some of the information may have been duplicated, and a streamlined approach to parental information is always welcome. Prospective and new parents will certainly benefit. But for existing parents the report may get engulfed in a prospectus document which they feel is notrelevant for them.

So while giving the appearance of helping to reduce the burden on the governing body, the proposed change actually does nothing of the sort. And why is the Government proposing a document amalgamating the two reports? Why not just leave us with the choice? I think we could handle it.

The second, more important, issue is that of public accountability. The annual report and parents' meeting is the main mechanism whereby the governing body is publicly accountable. It is the one annual opportunity for parents to hear how the governing body has discharged its responsibilities.

The main reason for the failure of the meetings is that parents do not understand the scope of governing body responsibilities and the statutory delegated authority they have over the school. If they understood this more widely, and realised that the governing body only holds that authority "in trust" for the public, we might find more interest in the subject.

In the meantime, the Government cannot remove the requirement for a report and a meeting because there must be a mechanism in place to hold the governing body formally to account.

The answer is to find another mechanism that requires rigorous scrutiny of the governing body. Perhaps there could be an annual report to the local education authority with the right for the local authority to call a meeting if necessary.

This would be consistent with the new duty of the local authority to secure community well-being on behalf of local people. This process could become an important part of the LEA's duty to secure school improvement. A debate about public accountability is required - not knee-jerk consultation documents.

See www.dfee.gov.ukgovernorconsult.htm for details of the consultation on the annual report and prospectus, which closes on June 8. Jane Martin is a former LEA governor adviser and now works for the Improvement and Development Agency for local government


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