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2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Governors and headteachers are battling over a new code of conduct to prevent interference in the management of schools. Bob Doe reports

Governors' groups have defeated attempts by the National Association of Headteachers to persuade the Government to endorse a code of practice designed to prevent governors overstepping their powers. Work is continuing in an attempt to reach a consensus on good practice, which would be published as a booklet, provisionally titled Good Governance.

The NAHT unveiled its draft code last summer when it met Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, to talk about the record numbers of heads suspended by governors. Delegates at the association's annual conference complained of governor interference in the day-to-day management of schools and that governors enjoyed exercising power but balked at responsibilities.

Mrs Shephard was initially sceptical about attempting to legislate for the relationship between governors and heads. However she told the National Governors Council before Christmas that she would "give serious consideration" to a code of practice and model standing orders to clarify expectations and procedures, "if - and this is a very big if - all the organisations concerned can reach agreement on what should be included".

The main governors' organisations rejected the NAHT draft code as an attempt to rewrite the law and win back some of the powers heads have lost to governing bodies. "Arrogant and insulting," was the reaction of one governor on the working group assembled by the Department for Education and Employment to consider the proposal.

The National Association of Governors and Managers spelt out its opposition in a written submission to the Nolan Committee, which is looking into governing bodies as part of its investigation into standards of conduct in public life.

"In our view such a code would do nothing to improve propriety. Matters of propriety are already covered in the school government regulations," NAGM told Nolan. "The code envisaged by NAHT also seeks to cover the relationship between the governing body and the headteacher which we see as a partnership. The idea of achieving that partnership via a code of practice is misconceived and potentially damaging to the good management of schools."

The NAGM said governors were supposed to have wide powers of discretion over what was best for their school under different circumstances. It claimed that a code which stipulates how far governors should delegate functions to the headteacher undermined this discretion. But NAGM accepts governors may want advice - not "a single mode of best practice but a variety of sensible options" - and has continued to attend meetings with other governor and headteacher representatives and the DFEE.

The NGC also rejects a code dictated by heads rather than governors. But the NGC is giving detailed consideration to a draft of Good Governance which was jointly proposed by NAHT and Action for Governors Information and Training, the governor trainers' organisation.

AGIT's support seems rather tentative, however. David Smith, chairman of AGIT said: "We endorse it in principle in the spirit of 'here is a set of ideas which we recommend to governing bodies to give serious consideration to'. "

Objections are being raised even to this less prescriptive draft. References to a code of conduct were changed to "a model code of principles and standing orders for school governing bodies". But this is not universally accepted. "Codes and standing orders demand acquiescence and denigrate the idea that governors have freedom and discretion," said NAGM chairman Hadrian Southorn.

Governors also take exception to the way the new draft mixes legal requirements with such controversial options as delegating to the headteacher responsibility for all staff appointments below a specified level. "It needs to be very clear about what are statutory requirements and what is advice and guidance," said Simon Goodenough, chairman of the NGC which met last week to consider the document. "The best code is one worked out by headteachers and governors on the spot."

However, some governors fear that an advisory list of dos and don'ts, which allows individual schools to make their own customised rules, will allow authoritarian heads or chairs to dictate to shy governors. Some feel the latest draft, like the code before it, still prescribes for governors but says too little about how headteachers should inform, involve and support them.

The DFEE has brought heads and governors closer to consensus, but a final agreement is still some way off. Further amendments have yet to be tabled and there are concerns that Good Governance is becoming too legalistic and unwieldy. The independent Institute of School and College Governors wants it shortened and refined and there is already talk of involving the Plain English Campaign in redrafting. Even the title is in question.

"It has got to be simple and user-friendly and capable of being read and appreciated by a harassed governor," said Simon Goodenough of the NGC which may yet decide to put the draft out to consultation to all its member associations.

A model code of principles for school management

The draft of "Good Governance" suggests: * Governing bodies agree to: help provide the best possible education; be accountable to parents and community; act fairly; abide by the law; act as a group, but make up their own minds; respect each other's views; respect confidentiality agreements.

* The governing body is responsible for: the conduct of the school; deciding (with head and staff) how it should improve; broad policies, plans and procedures.

* The headteacher is responsible for: formulating and implementing policy; managing and administering the school; organising and operating the curriculum; providing governors with information and advice.

* All governors should: play a full part; visit and get to know the school; attend school events; take part in training; promote the best interests of the school; never exploit their position for personal gain; follow established complaints procedures; be publicly loyal to the school.

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