United we stand, divided they fell ...

31st January 1997 at 00:00
The lengthy report by Nottinghamshire inspectors on Manton Junior School, following the crisis which hit the headlines through summer and autumn last year, is not cheerful reading. Any experienced governor adviser, given the opportunity to talk to a school's head and governing body before they embarked on their crucial relationship, would list almost every error highlighted in this report among classic causes of shipwreck.

Every school which has got into a highly-publicised mess, from Tyndale to Manton, has exhibited nearly all the same errors. It is so dauntingly familiar.

* Lack of trust and loyalty. * Governors working in factions, forgetting that they have no power except together. * Governors denied information about the problems. * Heads trying to keep the teachers happy at any cost and pretending to everybody else that all is well. * No common purposes. * No strategic planning. * Scant contact between infants and junior schools leading to poor progression, and loss of pupils on transfer at seven. * Low expectations of children from disadvantaged homes. Few strategies to get the understanding of parents.

Have we learnt so little in the 20 years since Tyndale? The day the report landed on my mat, I had been talking with a perceptive group of governor trainers about how to help governors grasp the meaning of the word "strategic" to describe the level at which they should play their part in raising standards.

The simple but startling question which the group put in my head - and I never fail to learn more than I teach - was whether we could assume that all headteachers operate on that plane anyway. How, I was asked, if the senior management in a school is not finding the right level of strategic intervention, could governors hope to do so? I can only accept the inspectors' word for it, but from what they say about Manton, that was the problem in a nutshell.

The report is not about the events which have become common knowledge. These were the exclusion of a disruptive 10-year-old, his reinstateme nt by the governing body, the refusal of teachers to accept this decision and teach the boy, the expedient of paying a supply teacher to give him one-to-one tuition, and the response of angry parents who kept their children home in protest, all resulting in the closure of the school for eight days.

The authority was asked for guidance on improving the relationship between the governors and the school once the dispute was settled. It was, in fact, scarcely "settled". It was removed from the agenda by the boy's parents' agreement, in the end, to transfer him to another school.

The resulting report is an analysis of the management of the school, in particular management of money, people, and pupils' learning and behaviour,and an account of the head's relationships with governors, teaching and non-teaching staff, the local education authority and its agencies and the feeder infants' school.

The picture is of a school without firm leadership, shared vision or sense of direction, distracted by poor or, at best, unproductive relationships, and by discipline problems, and having low expectations of the children.

One must start with sympathy for the head who sounds a caring and hard-working man who inherited a budget deficit. This led to a constant struggle to maintain staffing levels which, to him, was the most important requirement for the school. The catchment area has many problems; half the pupils have special needs.

A trusting relationship with a purposeful and united governing body would have been an enormous strength. If only one could convince heads that trust may be the only way to achieve trustworthy behaviour, and governors that trustworthy behaviour increases trust. Such governors would have collaborated in sound strategic planning and won the understanding of all sections of the school community when hard decisions had to be accepted. If fully and appropriately informed and respected (big "ifs"), they would have helped the head take a firm stance with the teaching staff based on the belief that, while keeping teaching ratios was important, there were other uses of money which could not be neglected to the degree manifested here. In-service training, for instance, and creating a more stimulating environment for children from drab streets. They would have had clear coherent behaviour policies and would have ensured that vital support staff as well as teaching staff understood them. And they would have performed one of the most important functions ofgovernors, to encourage high expectations of their community's children.

But, as in Tyndale, Manton governors were divided, trying as individuals or small groups to solve problems which without shared aims were insoluble.The head did not trust them and gave them no information to work with. Shared aims are useless without the knowledge to find the means.

Do governors get the head they deserve, just as heads in time get the governors they deserve? Can no one pull schools back from the brink once they have begun to slide.

Surely local education authorities - both as employers of headteachers and the source of governors' delegated power - have a right to say what is said in this report, but before they are asked, so that it is not too late?Children everywhere - not just in schools - are being damaged by adults' failure to build productive relationships, and children don't pass this way again.

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