Where the buck stops

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Hadrian Southorn details the ways governors answer for their actions. Much of the nonsense talked about the role of governors stems from confusion about their accountability. Clarity here would help everyone with an interest in the state school system. But to whom are governing bodies answerable, and for what?

A governing body must account for its actions to:

* those who established the school and fund it;

* parents (and through them, pupils);

* the community;

* the staff.

Only the accountability to those who established the school is direct and enforceable by those to whom it is owed. At a county, voluntary or special school, the governing body is accountable to the local authority which maintains the school not only for securing propriety and value for money in the way it fulfils the financial and staffing duties delegated under local management, but also for the school's educational effectiveness and performance, because the local authority has a responsibility for assuring the quality of what it provides.

At voluntary schools, and grant maintained (GM) schools which were formerly voluntary schools, the governing body is also accountable to the foundation for certain aspects of provision at the school. The governing body of a grant maintained school is accountable on all financial matters to the Funding Agency for Schools (FAS) or the Secretary of State if she funds the school directly.

Those who established and fund the school have various means of ensuring that the governing body acts responsibly and effectively. It has to comply with the regulations prescribed as a condition of funding; the local authority can replace the governors it appoints at county, voluntary and special schools and can withdraw the responsibilities delegated to such schools under local management of schools; the foundation can replace the governors it appoints at voluntary schools and at GM schools which were formerly voluntary schools; the Secretary of State can appoint additional governors at GM schools; if, after an inspection, a school is found to be "failing", the local authority, foundation or Secretary of State has wide powers to replace or appoint governors; and the local authority can cease to maintain a county, voluntary or special school and the Secretary of State a GM school.

As for accountability to parents, the governing body of every maintained school has a duty of care in relation to each pupil, and to offer each pupil the educational provision to which she or he is by law entitled. In discharging these duties, it is accountable to the pupil's parents, who have rights to information about what their child is taught and what progress he or she makes, and to complain about the curriculum received.

Parents also have access to the non-confidential papers and minutes of the governing body and its committees, and to the school prospectus (which must include a specified range of information), the reports of inspections carried out for the Office for Standards in Education and and of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector in Wales and the governing body's action plan in response to these. Parents must also receive from the governing body an annual report on the discharge of its functions and may attend an annual parents' meeting to express views which the governing body must consider.

This statutory framework creates an accountability which, though limited, is, in my view, adequate in principle because parents are not paying customers of the school, nor do they determine the character and scope of the school within the state system. In practice this accountability may become ineffective if parents make too limited a use of their statutory rights and if, for geographical or other reasons, they cannot use the ultimate sanction of removing their child to another school.

The concept of the governing body's accountability to the community is a nebulous one. Primarily secured by a governing body's accountability to the democratically elected local authority and by the fact that the public as a whole, not just parents, have access to the school prospectus, inspection reports and action plans, and governing body papers. In addition, the Secretary of State has the power to require from any governing body a report relating to any of the Secretary of State's many functions and to give directions to any governing body if she is satisfied that it is acting contrary to law or arbitrarily.

As for accountability to the staff, governing bodies either employ the school's staff or exercise most of the employer's functions which are delegated to them under local management. They can be held to account by staff in certain respects under employment law, and also under the procedures for staff discipline, grievances and pay which apply at the school. Moreover, if they behave as good employers should, they should take account of the views of staff in a way which, while falling short of formal accountability, entails an effective employeremployee partnership.

Most of what goes on at a school is the responsibility, not of the governing body, but of the head and other staff. But the staff are accountable to the head, and the head is accountable to the governing body for the effective and efficient discharge not only of the responsibilities which the governors have delegated to the head, but also those for which he or she is statutorily responsible. On these the head must make reports to the governing body as it may require. So the governing body is not only directly accountable for its own decisions and actions but indirectly, and ultimately, also for all that goes on at the school. At the level of the school, the buck stops only with the governors.

Giving full effect to the governing body's accountability presents certain problems. Local authorities often lack the resources to exercise their quality-assurance function effectively. For GM schools, the only public body responsible for assuring overall quality is the Secretary of State who is ill-placed to act except in extreme cases.

School government is a form of public service carrying large responsibilities which is undertaken voluntarily and unpaid by more than 300,000 ordinary citizens. Governors rightly incur no personal financial liability if they act within the law, conscientiously and with due care, and they may resign at any time. It is quite often difficult to recruit sufficient governors with the necessary qualities and time. If a governing body is heavily criticised, however justly, by those to whom it is accountable, governor retention and recruitment may become problematic. This is one reason why local authorities need to act not only in partnership with governing bodies, but also as their "critical friend".

Hadrian Southorn is chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers

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