Education: Parents prepare for power as governors: On the eve of the school elections, Sarah Strickland asks how ready the candidates are for their new duties

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The Independent Online
THE biggest and most significant local elections for many years are under way this week - almost unnoticed by anyone who is not a parent.

Over the next few weeks, between 40,000 and 50,000 parents will be elected on to the governing bodies of about 20,000 schools - that is, tens of thousands more people than anyone has ever elected to the county councils and metropolitan districts which function as local education


Of course, school governor elections have been held before. But the new governing bodies being chosen this term will have greater power than their predecessors, and than their local councillors. They will determine anything from the first devolved budgets for all primary schools, to the question of whether to conduct an opt-out ballot. They will, in other words, have the power to remove themselves from the local council's control altogether.

Depending on the number of pupils, schools can have between two and five parent governors, the same number of local authority-nominated governors, between three and six co- opted governors and the head, if they wish.

Parent governors are elected by secret ballot for a fixed term of four years. Power and influence are not always an appetising prospect for busy or uncertain parents. Most headteachers are gathering healthy lists of candidates, but some are struggling to persuade parents to stand.

Margaret Tulloch, secretary of the Campaign for State Education, says the campaign's members are mostly reporting that schools are having more parent candidates coming forward than places available. One school had 12 parents standing for five places. But fears remain that fewer parents will come forward because people are more aware of the workload and responsibility involved.

Lin Lewis, head of governor support services at Berkshire County Council, says there has already, in the first two or three weeks of term, been 'a reasonable degree of interest', and that people who have been governors before do not seem to have been frightened off. 'They like the fact that it's a real job, that they are part of the management of the school and that there is a role for them,' she says.

One primary school has had three vacancies and five nominations, one secondary school four vacancies with eight candidates. 'That's the kind of response we are getting - enough to mean you have to have an election.'

Anne Holt has been running the national governor recruitment campaign for the Department for Education. She says her impression is that the overall numbers of people coming forward will be as patchy as last year. 'We would always like more people, but given the workload involved I think it is unlikely that we will be inundated.'

Some schools, she says, are happy to avoid having a ballot, and do not mind if exactly the right number of people come forward. Where schools fail to attract enough parents to fill vacancies, the governing body is allowed to appoint. 'One can understand them not putting a lot of energy into drumming up additional people, unless they think the candidates are not representative.

'We should not underestimate the difficulty of the election process for people. You have to be a very political animal to want to go through a public election. Children are worried about humiliation if their parents lose, so often parents will not bother if they know there are already enough candidates. Elections are healthy as long as people can cope with the disappointment of losing.'

Walter Ulrich, spokesman for the National Association of Governors and Managers, believes being a parent governor is now 'the common man and woman's form of voluntary service par excellence', and that it is vital to get a wide range of people on governing bodies.

Typically, he says, it is easier to recruit in the suburbs than in inner-city areas. 'It is not quite a class thing, but there is an element of the catchment area in it. Undoubtedly it is a worry that schools are not attracting the right people. There tends to be less enthusiasm and confidence in working-class areas and a greater readiness to come forward in middle-class areas.

'But we don't just want the middle classes. We want anyone provided they have common sense and a willingness to work hard and share responsibility.'

Ms Holt believes the picture is not so gloomy. 'There are a lot of myths around about who governors are,' she says. 'There is actually an incredible cross-section of people coming forward. But we are anxious that we might not be getting enough candidates from ethnic minorities.'