Virtual responsibility

5th July 1996 at 01:00
The White Paper confirmed governors' central role. James Montgomery hears reactions to the plans. A compulsory annual debate on selection for every governing body, control over a larger slice of school funding and the prospect of more secure support and training were some of the significant proposals for school governors in last week's White Paper, Self-Government for Schools.

Despite recent criticism by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools that most governors need help to fulfil their strategic management role, the central and continuing role of governors is confirmed by the White Paper with its underlying principle that "each school should take responsibility" for achieving high standards, set targets for improvement and review its performance annually.

The Government offers to "consider what guidance and support is needed, particularly to help governing bodies make best use of the power which local management of schools gives them to improve the education provided for their pupils". This could include advice on existing good practice.

Money for governing bodies is already subsumed into the Grants for Education Support and Training programme; in future the Government "will look at the level of funding needed for governor support in the light of the proposals in this White Paper, and whether those funds should be be separately identified".

For governors of grant-maintained schools the Government may identify elements of the special purpose grant for development which governors might spend on induction and further training, an experienced clerk to act as adviser to the governing body and subscriptions to governors' associations.

According to Walter Ulrich, spokesman of the National Association of Governors and Managers, the Government is drawing a false distinction between grant-maintained and LEA schools. "Governors at LEA schools also need clerks and induction training," he argues.

"There is also a wider question of whether GM schools need a public authority which has a quality assurance responsibility in relation to what they do.

"LEAs have that responsibility, and there ought to be a corresponding body for GM schools. The Funding Agency for Schools expertise is purely financial, which isn't the same thing at all."

The governor trainer network, Action for Governor Information and Training, has been pushing for two years for earmarked money for governor training. AGIT's chairman, David Smith, says: "Funding for governor training should be exclusive and not buried in other grants. While it is part of the school effectiveness grant, governors are loath to spend on their own support and training."

And he was dubious about the suggestion that high-powered clerks would keep governing bodies out of trouble. "I am not sure the ethos and culture of schools and school governing bodies is prepared yet to grant clerks the kinds of powers the Department for Education and Employment envisages."

As part of the Government's aim to increase diversity of schools, the White Paper proposes that "all governing bodies" will have to consider each year, in consultation with parents, whether to introduce an element of selection.

According to the DFEE, the wording is deliberately vague and does not exclude primary schools. "We have left it fairly open and loose," a spokesman said. "We have included all schools; we may decide in the final draft to be more specific."

The National Governors Council views the move towards greater selection as worrying. "They are keen to give parents greater choice - but what happens to the children who don't fit?" said former chairman Simon Goodenough.

"The capable child is getting a very good education out of mixed ability schools and it is not clear that anyone has provided evidence as to whether greater selection will improve the schools even more, or give brighter pupils even greater opportunity."

The National Association of Governors and Managers has reservations about the lack of accountability. Mr Ulrich said: "We have always taken the view that if there are going to be changes in the admission arrangements, they should not be made unilaterally by one school's governing body, "No governing body has the right to affect the fortunes and prospects of another school without a proper public process."

The White Paper proposes to extend LMS so that 95 per cent of the potential schools budget will be delegated by 1999-2000.

The NAGM fears this may be going too far. "Not all governing bodies want more delegation," Mr Ulrich argues. "The idea that everyone has got to buy back access to local services is very silly because most of them you hardly need, but when you do it is pretty expensive."

The White Paper also incorporates several recommendations from the Nolan committee on standards in public life relating to GM schools.

It recognises that "weaknesses in governance, failures of financial control and poor educational performance can all be interlinked" and proposes that the Funding Agency for Schools should take an operational lead in supporting schools with serious problems.

Having already introduced an independent member to grant-maintained school appeal panels considering disciplinary action against a headteacher, the Government may now extend the independent representation to all staff appeal panels.

Other Nolan recommendations adopted by the White Paper include: * drawing up guidance on good practice; * lifting the restriction on non-teaching staff becoming governors; * reducing the term of office for first, foundation and sponsor governors to four years. However, there will be no limit on how many terms a governor can serve; * encouraging technology colleges, language colleges and the new sports and arts colleges to report publicly the level of support they receive from sponsors who have nominated one or more governors; * Replacing the title "first governor" with "community governor".

Finally, the White Paper provides new powers to address the problems of failing GM schools. At a former county GM school, the Government is already able to appoint additional governors, and replace some or all of the existing governors. While "this will usually be enough to secure the school's recovery", the Government will have as a final resort the authority to appoint a body on the lines of an Education Association to take over the school management.

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