Shared options

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Joan Sallis replies to the proposal which would remove responsibility for standards from small-school governors

In the last sentence of her article (TES, March 14), Anthea Millett, the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, hopes we can increase the ability of governing bodies to improve the standards of performance of the schools for which they are acountable.

Yet her most startling proposal is to withdraw this responsibility from nearly a quarter of our primary schools and hand it over to a professional inspector, confining the governing body to the cosier supportive functions.

Anthea Millett thinks the governors of smaller schools are part of the problem rather than the solution, but we must surely help them overcome their cosiness rather than reinforce it.

If small schools have a problem, it is that with only nine governors and the same tasks as larger schools, they often find it hard to cover the work and import enough expertise. For this reason I suggest - and this has been put forward by the Campaign for State Education in a recent policy paper - that schools of fewer than 100 pupils should be able to co-opt up to three additional governors.

Ms Millett's proposed new officer would be accountable to the school's providers, not the governors, so might well increase the protection of professional territory. He or she would not even be exclusively concerned with one school, and more grouping of schools for governance is suggested. Most heads and governors hate grouping and some are trying to unscramble their shared governing bodies.

This is because of the huge amount of school-specific business since LMS and the difficulty of dealing with delicate matters arising from school inspectors without privacy. Grouping also weakens accountability and makes it harder to ask challenging questions.

It is extraordinary that anyone should advance so many sound ideas for strengthening the watchdog role of governors in secondary and larger primary schools and go back to the tea-and-biscuits model for smaller primaries. The implications for the status of primary education are enormous, the evidence in support unstated and the relevance to standards in schools dubious. If, as I suspect, the inspector would increasingly become identified with professional sensitivities within the school, it would be harder than ever to voice those concerns about school performance.

Anthea Millett's view of how the rest of the system is working rings true in many respects, though not for me in some vital ones. She says, quite rightly, that governors, well-organised and business-like as they now almost always are, often shy away from the hard questions they should be asking about school performance. It seems grossly unfair, however, to suggest that the problems at Crook, Manton and The Ridings were mainly dysfunctioning governors.

My experience is that when schools reach the headlines, the common factors are more likely to be local authorities which don't have the relationship right and heads who don't know what "strategic" means, never mind their governors. These factors, plus a lack of common purpose, failure to build good relationships or trust and low expectations, which haven't changed since the William Tyndale school affair, occur monotonously often in post-mortem reports.

Many authorities know how, in the new relationships, they can intervene to cure these ailments, but a few on both extremes of the political divide get it wrong. One group intervenes too much and not wisely, too preoccupied with doing violent good to people, either to promote new forms of democracy or raise expectations of children. The other is often laid back to the point of negligence, with no thought of intervening to stop power games by either governors or heads. Heads who won't share are a lot more common than governors who aren't fit to.

I wish Anthea Millett could have the experience I have had of working with thousands of the new generation of governors: committed, perceptive, realistic. If they fail, it will not be because the legal boundaries of their responsibility are unclear but because some heads don't like the way the boundaries have been drawn.

I agree that school improvement is the standard by which this brave experiment is judged; that school inspectors must hold governors to account for their part (as long as they ensure that heads let them play it); that clerking should have higher status; and that governors and heads need high-quality training in working together. There is not much evidence of such training for heads, and governor training is being damaged by the Government's refusal to provide ring-fenced funding for it.

An induction session should be obligatory for governors. It is also essential that local authorities step in tactfully and in time when either heads or governors go wrong. We need to promote a culture of continuous improvement in the teaching profession and an acceptance of the legitimacy of the role of governors.

This must start in colleges. Who better to promote it than the head of the Teacher Training Agency? Teachers are so defensive, they cannot accept that all human activity is capable of improvement and that ordinary people can have something wise to say about what professionals take years to learn.

Twenty years ago, Anthea Millett, then a deputy head, stood out for me as a far-seeing fellow member of the Taylor Committee, set up to look into the reform of governing bodies. I hope she will join me in endorsing what another outstanding member, Fred Flower, said at the end: "The partnership must be real and it must be built."

Joan Sallis was a parent member of the Taylor Committee. She will share a platform with Anthea Millett at the AGIT annual conference on July 1. Details from 01926 413740

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