Why Sheffield used the iron fist

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Stripping school governors of their powers is a rare step for a local authority to take. For one comprehensive, the fall from grace came without warning. Mark Whitehead reports

When Mary Burdon, deputy chair of the 19-strong governing body of Earl Marshall comprehensive, arrived at Sheffield City Council's education department one day last December, she had no idea she was about to be handed a letter informing her of the council's decision to take control the school's budget and staffing.

Mrs Burdon, who is headteacher of a special school in Sheffield, says: "It was the last day of term, just a few days before Christmas, and my immediate thought was that I didn't want the other governors to find out from the newspapers. I spent the evening trying to contact them to tell them what had happened. They were very upset."

The council's first act was to inform the school's head, the controversial progressive educationist Chris Searle, that he was to be transferred to other, unspecified duties - in effect, sacked, a term before he was due to take early retirement.

Fellow governor Mike Atkins, former director of the city council's equal opportunities unit and a leader of Sheffield's black community, says: "We were shocked and angry. Only a week before the announcement we had a one-day seminar with the council's chief inspector to discuss the action plan and there was no hint of what was coming. We had already decided how to make the necessary savings and deal with the action plan."

But the local authority felt Earl Marshal had serious problems. It had been branded a failing school after a disastrous Office for Standards in Education report which highlighted poor management and low standards. The council claimed that if it did not act quickly there was a danger of a Department for Education and Employment "hit squad" taking control. The authority was under pressure from some staff at the school who were against the head's no-expulsion policy, and from local MP David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, who was worried about the school's poor performance.

It may have been an unusual move for a council which has enjoyed good relations with its governors, but there was little choice, councillors believed. "Nobody wanted to do it, but they were heading for crisis," says Viv Nicholson, chair of the Labour-controlled council's education committee. "They weren't taking action quickly enough. They appeared unable to face up to realities."

Walter Ulrich, information officer at the National Association of Governors and Managers, explains that for schools to operate under the now virtually universal local management system, the authority must retain its right to take back powers it has delegated under the 1988 Education Reform Act. "The LEA has only delegated its powers, not surrendered them, and it retains ultimate responsibility for the good performance of the school in the interests of the pupils," he says.

"People sometimes argue that the authority can only take back its powers if the school has mismanaged its budget, but the Act makes it clear that delegation can be withdrawn if the governors are not achieving value for money. That gives the authority enormously wide powers. Governors are accountable to those who have established and funded the school, in this case, the local authority."

When the delegated powers under the 1988 Act are suspended, arrangements revert to those of the 1986 Education Act. The governors are still responsible for the curriculum and school discipline but they only have an advisory role in major decisions such as the appointment of staff.

The row at Earl Marshal hit the local press and was followed by a walkout by dozens of children. The governors considered mass resignation, but decided instead to sit tight. They put a string of demands to the council, saying they should be fully informed of any dealings over the school, given a timetable for restoring their powers, and that the council should issue a statement expressing respect for Chris Searle's professional achievements. All were broadly agreed.

The governors have been told a new head will be appointed by a committee of three governors and three elected council members - as would have occurred under the 1986 Act - and their powers should be restored by September. Meanwhile, the governors continue to meet and have agreed to work with the authority to sort out the school's problems. A caretaker head - one of Sheffield's inspectors - is running the school and staff numbers are to be reduced.

Mike Atkins believes all the furore was unnecessary. If the authority had discussed the situation with him and his colleagues, he says, they could have reached agreement and avoided a damaging row. "They did it to prove they were taking action. But they could have achieved the same results without the big public display. Now we will have to put a lot of energy into rebuilding confidence in the school."

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