Education Viewpoint: I won't be a governing busybody

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The Independent Online
In the wake of the Education Act 1986 the powers, duties and responsibilities of school governors have never been so great. In October last year Richard Phillips became a parent governor, hoping to offer a helping hand. Instead he became a reluctant instrument of power, and for that reason has decided to resign.

WHEN parents at my son's school voted me in as a governor I was flattered and at the same time humbled by the task ahead. For a long time I had wanted to play a part in maintaining and improving the high standard of education at Moseley Church of England Primary School. I wanted to be a governor for the sake of my son Rory, nine, his younger brother and sister, and all the other children living in our Birmingham suburb.

Two days before my election last year the Education Secretary, John Patten, launched a blistering attack on the standards of education in the city. In a fringe speech at the Tory party conference at Blackpool he described Birmingham's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, as a 'nutter' and said schools in the area were in a 'frightful muddle'.

From where I was standing, it could only be seen as a groundless attack, serving no purpose but to undermine schools' goodwill and hard work. It hardened my resolve and I set about my new responsibilities with a nave enthusiasm.

Within three months I realised that the role of the governor has changed since the local management of schools was introduced. To be a governor is nothing like I had expected. My plans to be merely supportive and helpful in shaping the future and safeguarding standards were not to be fulfilled.

The job of school governor is now a position of influence and power - too much power. I will be accused of being frightened by power, but I am resigning not so that I can run away, but so that I can draw attention to the unfortunate changes that have given governors so much power.

I believe that the machinery has been allowed to run out of control, and it is time that some power was returned to the teachers and administrators - who seem no longer to be trusted to operate as confident experts with the final say.

As a parent, I would like to take it for granted that when I leave my offspring at the start of the school day I have a comfortable feeling that it will be a well managed and fruitful one, paving the way for a stable and informed adolescence and adulthood.

Nowadays we are encouraged not only to visit the school to see for ourselves our children being taught, but also to become an integral part of it by making decisions and controlling the schools.

As a parent governor I have been asked to decide how much money the headmistress should be paid. As a member of a small committee I have helped to draw up a comprehensive policy on the teaching of sex education to children aged four to 11. In the background I have had to balance the moral and Christian ethos of the school and take into account comments from parents of every shade of opinion.

I have had to consider what procedures should take place in the event of a pay grievance or misconduct by a member of staff.

These jobs were once in the hands of the local education authority. Now, instead, 12 novices advise a headmistress who has 25 years' experience behind her. It is the governors who have the final say.

Once, meetings of school governors were nothing more than polite social gatherings around a table of tea and biscuits. I would not support a return to those days. I am proud to say that I was instrumental in helping teachers to draw up draft policies on the core subjects of English, maths and science, and that I have come up with imaginative ways to develop and provide for special needs within the school.

But the old days were less dangerous. Power should be returned to the teachers and educationists who are trained experts employed to do the job. It is right that they are accountable, but not to a group of dabblers whose motives for governorship will increasingly be the attraction of power.

I have heard many headteachers complain that they don't know where they stand any more. It is not surprising when they are accountable now not only to their employers, the local authorities, but also to the Department for Education, parents and, worst of all, the new, enthusiastic and all-powerful members of governing busybodies.

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