21st March 1997 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers governors' questions

Q - We have been model governors in relating our spending each year to development plan targets. In the coming year, however, we have to absorb a cut of 5 per cent in real terms, allowing for teachers' pay adjustments. With all the care we can give it this looks like a standstill year, and our ambitious first instalment of site improvement, so long looked forward to, has to go.

A - Congratulations on maintaining this important link with the development plan and on realising how much it stimulates staff and students if something is visibly improving. But there is no law that says the development plan cannot be revised: indeed a school that can carry through five years' promises in the same order without modification is unusual.

An admission of a "standstill year", even if you call it consolidation, is bad for a school since lots of people perceive that if you do not advance you slide back. Whether or not that is so, I believe that there must be something to lift people's spirits and engage their hopes, and in most plans there is an item to do with school performance or activity that has no big price tag. Look at the rest of your plan. Perhaps you could move such a project up the timescale or introduce a similar new one, and leave the first instalment of environmental improvement until there is hope of continuing it.

Alternatively, is there something concerning the grounds which depends more on imagination and self-help than money? Have you a local college where a horticulture or garden design class might take on a project using school grounds as a piece of coursework? I heard of one of these quite near us a while back which I believe drew heavily on Learning Through Landscape (Tel: 0181 850 3112) guidance. Members of our school community dug a pond last year. Or might a local garden centre sponsor a feature? If it is sports provision you had in mind perhaps the Foundation for Sport and the Arts or a Lottery grant might be possible. Even imaginative tidying up makes a big impression: have you any relic of the past which you have almost ceased to see whose removal might be a revelation?

I have assumed that no real economies are possible but if this is the first year you have suffered a cut do look imaginatively at your budget. It is in many cases only necessity which has made schools do things they could have done before, like querying their water bills or delaying for just a term the replacement of a teacher in a practical subject which lends itself to a carousel approach. Don't think I am defending education economies. I hate them too, but creative approaches can sometimes soften the blow.

Q - Our local education authority is very keen on using comparisons with other schools, both locally and over a wider area, to judge whether we offer good value for money. Surely such comparisons are very crude, ignore widely different circumstances and often miss the intangibles?

A - Of course the use of comparisons has limitations. Everything we conclude from league tables underlines this point: the playing field is not level and at extremes in some schools teachers work twice as hard to achieve half as much. But I would never use the limitations of comparisons to discourage or delay their use. Without them we can be very wrong about our school's health, and if it were not for the pressure of comparison we should not have got anything like as far with improving its accuracy through things like value-added measures of progress.

Intangibles are important. A comprehensive might put a lot of effort and resource into drama, to take a simple example, and many of the most important effects on young people's attempts at making sense of the world, coping with their own confusions and empathising with others will not show for many years, and even then may not lend themselves to measurement. Some things you just have to believe in.

But because you can't compare everything, do not assume you cannot compare anything. If you only look at your nearest neighbour school's "vital statistics" you can learn something. It could pinpoint relationships between class size and reading progress; the number of subjects taken for exams and average passes; expenditure on information technology and cost of administrative staff; low staff turnover and poor in-service training; high turnover and class size.

Any difference which stands out is worth a second look. An old boiler will affect heating costs. A flat roof tends to need more repairs. A split site makes it harder to control truancy.

You do not have to be very clever to see these obvious connections but you do have to compare before you even spot them, and in the attempt you may find one really stunning illumination. Remember that these days if we do not compare schools parents will, and full marks to them if they do not always go for the obvious.

Q - The head at our school has ruled that it "inappropriate" to have teacher governors on committees looking at the pay of heads and deputies, teachers' allowances, discipline and redundancy. He also thought they shouldn't be on finance, since they had a direct interests in departmental allowances. Our teacher governors think this is unreasonable. As chair I said I would ask you.

A - The fact that something may be embarrassing does not make it illegal. A school is a small community where many are interlinked by kinship, marriage, friendship, work, interests, churches, with someone who could at any time become "school business". If we took too strict a view of "interest" we should not get far.

Teacher governors have equal status in every respect except not being able to be chair. We should do everything we can to avoid excluding them from tasks unnecessarily, as their value in the system is at least in part in proportion to their success in bringing staff concerns to bear on important decisions, and convincing the staff in turn that decisions affecting them are made openly, fairly and without prejudice. When decisions about the school budget are made, for instance, it is vital that a teacher governor serves on the finance committee and is party to the distribution of funds within the school. It would be a strange head anyway who did not take account of all staff views and perceived needs before even making proposals on the budget.

Teacher governors are subject to the same rule as all governors, namely that they do not take part where they could profit from the outcome of a decision - "more than the generality of teachers", the regulations say.

Thus, while all teachers have an interest in who becomes the new head, there may only be one or two if any for whom the appointment could create a vacancy for which they would apply.

If a teacher feels that something comes too near to hear - for example, the discipline of a close friend - they are entitled to refuse.

Also the governors are entitled not to elect someone to a task unless they think they would be the most suitable. But unless there is a special interest in the legal sense they may not exclude them because they are teachers. Incidentally it is not for the head to rule on this at all.

If the application of the law is not clear the whole governing body decides where to draw the line in a particular case, and their decision stands unless or until someone challenges in the courts the decisions so made.

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