Personally speaking: A case of governor overload

Last week Ofsted issued a damning report on education in the London Borough of Hackney, and the Government sent in a special Improvement Team. Brian Weller describes the frustrations of being a governor in a Hackney school
In a passage which rang as true as any in the report by the Office for Standards in Education, the inspectors criticised the lack of consultation with schools over the authority's plan for "transforming Hackney." Consultation, like transformation, is a problem word in Hackney. The LEA and the core of the Council consult late and usually without much consideration for the consultee. A key example last year was a "consultation" over the Christmas holiday, after councillors had decided to withdraw a long paid recruitment supplement from staff, about how staff would like it withdrawn. By the time staff replied, the Council discovered that only governors had the power to vary contracts, passed the buck to schools, but reduced school budgets anyway by the assumed saving. I spent three days digging us out.

Six days at the Whitsun half-term was the time for consulting headteachers and chairs on the principles of trading services under which schools will buy in services such as IT and governor training. Thirty six pages of internal marketspeak were sent to them at their home addresses.

Hackney's new draft Education Development Plan was tabled at a meeting with headteacher, governor, and union representatives in July. It was sent to all Hackney governors in August, during the summer holidays. Comments were requested by 17 September, two weeks into the autumn term. Only around five of the 71 schools will have held governors' meetings by then!

This smacks of an authority covering its back rather than its responsibilities.

Ofsted inspectors, oddly, whilst criticising the LEA for non-delivery, say that Hackney governors have an outmoded view of what an authority ought to provide under local management of schools.

In an authority where it is impossible even to recruit a complement of governors, I hope the Improvement Team will have time to consider the unrealistic burdens transferred to governors by several years of hurried and excessive legislation. More hurried legislation is on the way, with a White Paper in July, schools consultation this term (organised by head- teachers and governors) and a Bill in the autumn. Can David Blunkett make time for some research on the impact of devolved management on schools and governors, and the realism of carrying it further, especially in inner- city schools with most to do and less resources?

My school is probably typical of governor overload. In the same month that my head teacher went permanently sick last September, three governors resigned due to work pressure or moving out. They were an architect, who handled our building issues, an ex LEA adviser who provided lay curriculum expertise, and a solicitor, who managed our contracts and appeals. Those skills are hard to replace. We still have vacancies for governors.

Because of the permanent sickness, resolved by retirement only this month, we have an acting Head and Deputy. They have performed wonders while learning on the job. Hackney's "transformation" management training did not include headteachers. Last term LEA personnel advisers told me that as Chair of Governors I was line manager to the headteacher. Once upon a time that was an LEA function. I'm streetwise, managerially, but allocating line management of headteachers to non-professional, part-time volunteers is crazy.

So, after our school Ofsted inspection in November we can look forward to filling the headteacher vacancy. Last time round, in 1993, that involved around a dozen meetings and training sessions. We can also try again to recruit the teachers it has been impossible to appoint in advance of our Ofsted inspection (most teachers elsewhere have already experienced one inspection, and don't want another with us). Then we tackle the 1997/98 school budget, hoping that the LEA's financial information service will by then be functioning.

That work programme would be taxing in an authority with political and professional leadership. In Hackney there is no overall political control, no Chair of Education, "one of the most impoverished urban areas in Western Europe" (Ofsted), and of course no Chief Officer in the LEA.

So, finally, the Improvement Team needs to impact quickly on the continuing vacancy for a Chief Education Officer, now in its sixteenth month and filled only temporarily.

The writer is Chair of Governors at a Hackney primary school, and Secretary of The Association of Chairs in Hackney Education. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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