Social cost of the expenses squeeze;Live issues;Governors; Briefing

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
The House of Commons education select committee suggests governors should claim expenses from school budgets. John Adams explains how lack of payment excludes the less affluent.

EXPENSES may well be the only area where journalists are thought to show true flair and imagination, but they are now also a sensitive subject for school governors.

The formal position is clear: governors can claim expenses incurred in the course of their duties. The problem is that they don't. Expenses can be claimed for travel, subsistence and for child care. However, fewer than 5 per cent of governors make any claims; in fact the vast majority expect, on the contrary, to put their hand in their pockets for numerous school fund-raising activities.

The main reason why people don't claim is, of course, that their expenses would come out of the school budget.

Governors have to approve the budget each year and are acutely aware of the hard choices that have to be made. To see a separate and easily identifiable item of "governor expenses" on the budget would be both embarrassing - imagine how it would go down in the staffroom - and disheartening.

The problem is that the costs thus associated with being a governor may deter potential recruits.

Unemployed people, those on very low incomes, and single parents who cannot afford extra childcare, among others, may simply not volunteer to become governors.

It is no answer to say that these people are entitled to claim expenses. If they won't, then we have effectively - albeit quite unintentionally - excluded an important section of the community from the role of governor. The fundamental aim that a governing body should properly reflect the school's local community is thus severely undermined.

However, there is an easy solution. A separate "ring-fenced" fund could be held by each authority to meet governor expenses, thereby removing the awkwardness of making a claim on individual school budgets.

Opponents of this idea claim that it would "cut across the principle of school self-management". And indeed it would, even if to a very modest extent. But that "principle" is hardly sacrosanct. Indeed, it is breached in many other aspects of school life.

It is obvious that such a fund would have to be met from the education budget thereby reducing (again by modest amount) the funds available for other purposes. But, as the Select Committee report says "to be effective and representative, governing bodies need to be able to retain and recruit the right people, from all sections of the local community."We can't have it both ways. If we truly wish to widen governing body membership we must take practical steps to bring that about. In short, we must pay the price.

John Adams is chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers. "The Role of School Governors", the report of the Education and Employment Select Committee, House of Commons, July 1999 is available from the Stationery Office on 0345 585463, or on the website http:www.parliament.uk

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