Stifled by party politics

17th March 2000 at 00:00
LEA governors have been much maligned but Diana Hinds finds there are changes afoot

THE traditional method of drawing education authority school governors from political parties, in proportion to the council seats each holds, can be useful for schools - particularly if the

councillor-governor is well-

informed on policy matters. But these governors have increasingly been the subject of complaints.

It is said that many LEA governors don't involve themselves in the work of the governing body. LEA governors are sometimes felt to be promoting the council's rather than the school's interests, and some councillors have come under attack for interfering in the management of LEAs.

The recent Office for Standards in Education report on Leeds found that local councillors were still able to influence the provision of extra funds for schools in their wards, "giving rise to

confusion about where accountability and authority lie".

Under the traditional system, still used by most authorities, "parent governors are elected by parents, co-opted governors by the governing body, teacher

governors by teachers - but LEA governors just turn up," according to one frustrated governor.

A chair of governors in a

secondary school has experienced problems since a strongly left-wing trade unionist was put in as an LEA governor last September.

"We had no say in it. He is not interested in the school - he even asked to be kept away from contact with pupils and is as disruptive as he can be. He has been asking, for instance, about staff trade union membership - not within a

governor's remit - and urging the school to purchase all LEA

services. Other governors are saying to me they are finding this hard to deal with. The effect on the governing body is destructive."

A co-opted governor at an inner-city first school, in a Labour ward, complains that Labour councillors and their supporters on the board dominate the

decision-making. "I see evidence of pre-preparation before governor meetings, and motions are then whizzed through without any discussion."

Another governor, with 15 years' experience as a parent and a co-opted governor, asked to be put forward as a Conservative member for LEA governorship "to change the mould".

"My experience of LEA

governors is that they turn up to the main meeting and then you don't see them again. They get appointed by the council whip, and are not really interested in education, so they do the absolute minimum. LEA governors like this are a waste of space."

He believes that LEA governor vacancies would be better filled by people outside party lists, such as ex-headteachers, educationists, ex- or serving educatio officers, as a way of "putting the expertise back into governing bodies, rather than letting it go out of the system".

The Government is known to favour a less political role for LEA governors, and some authorities want to make the process of their appointment more openly democratic. A substantial number are beginning to make changes. A survey last year by the Local Government Association found that 54 per cent of local authorities still appoint LEA governors extensively through political parties, 34 per cent partially, and 12 per cent not at all.

In Newham, east London, where all the council seats are held by Labour and where LEA governor vacancies have been hard to fill, the local authority abandoned the party-list system about 18 months ago. Vacancies are now advertised across the community and applicants all undergo a brief interview, to make sure they understand what the commitment entails. Only two or three have been turned away so far.

"We now have people coming forward who reflect the community better - including younger people, more black people and more women," says Graham Lane, Newham's education chair.

The LEA governor vacancies can now attract those who have enjoyed serving as parent governors, but whose children have moved on. They also draw in more applicants from local businesses, which can be beneficial for schools.

"The role of governor is not just to be the head's 'critical friend' but to take strategic decisions. People in middle or senior management are likely to understand this kind of decision-making, more than those who are interested in a school because their children are there," says Paul Baglee, head of governor services at Newham.

Barry Smith, who runs a manufacturing firm in Newham and has experience as a parent and a co-opted governor, became an LEA governor at a local secondary school last December.

"I'm fairly apolitical; but I don't think you have to have any allegiance to a political party to bring anything positive to a school. Personally, I think it's healthier not to be tied to a party, because you can feel freer to speak against a particular policy."

Peterborough is another authority widening its LEA governor recruitment, not because it has a problem filling vacancies, but because it wants to broaden participation and local community involvement. Ward representatives can still put forward party members, but the authority also seeks out potential governors from across the community, and all nominations are considered by a local authority panel.

"We still draw mainly from party lists," says Kim Garcia, Peterborough education officer, "but the system is evolving to be more inclusive of community representatives."

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