Towards decentralisation

Mark Whitehead

A recently launched European network for governors aims to encourage the exchange of knowledge and expertise. Mark Whitehead reports

The job of a school governor, you might think, is simply to govern. But what that means in reality depends to a very large extent on where you are in Europe.In Finland, for example, governors of comprehensive and upper-secondary schools decide which textbooks their pupils should use and approve the curriculum. They hire the teachers and agree the school's budget. They even decide how much annual leave the head should have.

But in Norway, Finland's neighbour, school "co-ordinating committees" have only an advisory role. They are regarded as purely consultative, not decision-making.

The very different experiences of governors in Europe were highlighted in Birmingham recently at the launch of the European Network for the Governance of Schools, attended by representatives of 12 nations. The network, aimed at encouraging an exchange of knowledge and expertise, could be particularly helpful for British governors grappling with huge increases in their responsibilities. There are already pan-European organisations for teachers and parents. The governors' network completes the jigsaw.

The way other countries govern their schools inevitably reflects different traditions. "People feel we've got it about right," says Roald Beck, Norway's representative at the meeting and head of a school just outside Oslo. "The co-ordinating committees give advice to the head on how to act, but they don't have any actual powers. Parents would like more influence on decisions, but it seems a good balance."

Finland's Lusa Varanko, a teacher and governor at a sixth-form college in Helsinki, explains that decentralisation has increased in her country. They have even ditched their national curriculum. "We've always had quite a lot of power," she says, "but recently schools have become more independent from the national board of education.

"We used to have a national curriculum but that changed a few years ago. Now every school has to write its own curriculum, although it has to be accepted by the government. It gives quite a lot of freedom to schools. The school boards are not just rubber-stamping bodies. It means a lot more work, but it doesn't seem to cause any problems."

The Netherlands has also moved towards decentralisation. But it has brought a problem familiar to many British governing bodies.

"Five years ago everything was decided by the central government," says Anton Kotte from The Hague. "But now schools are responsible for spending their own money. We have a big problem finding people to stand for the school boards because of the responsibility."

Chris Lowe, head of Prince William school in Oundle, chairman of the network's steering committee and a past-president of the European Secondary Heads Association, perceives a trend across Europe towards decentralisation. The UK is seen as something of a model.

"It's even happening in France, which is still rooted in a very centralised Napoleonic tradition," he says. "People are finding that the empowerment of local people brings results in terms of getting extra money for the school and influencing how they are run. For the governments, it's a way of passing the buck when there are difficult decisions to be made."

"The key question for governments throughout Europe," says Peter Downes, a former headteacher who helped organise the conference, "is how far public representatives, who are ultimately paying the bills, should have power over a school's management. In Britain this has led to a big increase in disputes between governors and headteachers over who does what.

"The general trend across Europe is for more public accountability and lay involvement," he says. "But in some cases it can be seen as going beyond that and encroaching on the professional domain of the head and the staff. It seems likely there will be increasing input from parents and there are bound to be tensions."

Professor Hywel Thomas, head of the school of education at Birmingham University, who spoke on the theme of education reform, sees a common problem of governors not having enough expertise to fulfil their various functions properly. It can mean, he says, having to rely too heavily on one source of information, usually the headteacher.

It is a problem recognised by Nikolaos Polychronides, headteacher of a girls' secondary school in Piraeus, Greece. "Ordinary people do not have much to do with education," he says. "There is a lack of knowledge of the legislation. What we really need is training to help governors perform their duties. "

In this respect, Britain can take pride in being at the forefront in Europe. The conference heard, for example, how Birmingham provides training for governors in everything from recruitment to finances to monitoring the curriculum. The European network is planning seminars on training for governors in the next two years, before its next full conference.

Fran Stephens, secretary of the Birmingham Governors Forum, affiliated to the National Governors Council, says that if people were given more information and advice, it would help break down the mystique of education. "People are realising that if we work in partnership we can really make a difference. "

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Mark Whitehead

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