School governors vs the Government

As local authorities are squeezed yet again, education finds itself in the front line, says
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The Independent Online
Governors, empowered by the Government to oversee its school reforms, are in revolt. As this year's spending cuts take effect, governor power and parent power, trumpeted as the cornerstone of Conservative policy, are being turned against ministers. Governing bodies are resorting to unprecedented action. They are threatening to set deficit budgets in order to avoid bigger class sizes and teacher redundancies. In Shropshire, 36 governing bodies are threatening to resign. The county council has been forced to take over the finances of one primary school whose governors have alreadyresigned over the cuts. In Oxfordshire and Derbyshire, two schools are to set an illegal budget, and in Oxford governors will consider doing the same if the Government fails to fund the teachers' pay award, due to be announced on Thursday.

Parents are also protesting. In Warwickshire, an alliance of parents, staff and governors is trying to initiate a national campaign. In Oxford, 400 parents turned out for a meeting involving fewer than a dozen schools.

Ten years ago the idea of governors engaging in such a rebellion, let alone acting illegally, would have been unthinkable. Governors had little power over school spending and often blamed local authorities for cuts. The 1988 Education Reform Act deprivedlocal authorities of their power to run school budgets, handing over responsibility to heads and governors. Many heads and governors welcomed their newly won freedom and power.

But the climate now is different. Governors are responsible for making cuts in their own schools' budgets, for making teachers redundant and for finding the money for textbooks. And with the buffer of the local authorities removed, ministers find themselves confronting the very people they wished to placate. As Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics, says: "The creation of delegated school budgets has allowed a genie out of a bottle. That genie is parent and governor power. Tory MPs listen to them in a way they never listened to local authorities."

For Conservative MPs who are being inundated with letters from protesters, the facts are uncomfortable. The voice of the teacher unions has scarcely been heard. The Labour-dominated local authorities have been slow off the mark. This is a non-party fightover a single issue, with some of the Government's own supporters leading the battle. Joe Hannigan, an Oxford parent and an organiser of Conservative Parents Fighting Against Cuts, says: "This campaign is motivated entirely by parents. What is happeningis going to be extremely dangerous to the Conservatives at the next election."

But have the protesters any chance of success? If governing bodies take the extreme step of setting deficit budgets or resigning, local authorities have the right to set budgets for their schools. Under the law, they can withdraw from schools the power to set their own budgets and resume their authority to decide whether teachers should be sacked. At Queenswood primary school in Telford, Shropshire county council has already taken over and is selecting a teacher for redundancy after the governors resigned.

Local authorities can also instruct headteachers, who are employed by the local authority, not the school, to implement a sensible budget. That would be unpalatable to a Government that has spent 15 years trying to curb councils' powers, but it would solve the practical problem.

The governors' dilemma was illustrated at a meeting of Oxford governors 10 days ago when mass governor resignations were ruled out for fear of putting heads in an invidious position. However, if enough governing bodies rebelled, local authorities might reasonably argue that their own administrative staff, sharply reduced since the introduction of delegated budgets, could not cope with the job, and turn to the Department for Education. What the department could do, short of nationalising the education service, is not clear. Many believe the Government would be powerless against a nationwide rebellion of governing bodies.

So far, the rebellion is small-scale. Though the middle classes in some shire counties are angry, those in big cities such as Birmingham and Manchester remain quiet. Thursday's teachers' pay settlement may change that. Schools' budgets are channelled through local authorities.The Teachers' Pay Review Body has recommended a pay increase of 2.7 or 2.8 per cent - for which authorities have not budgeted. Last week, the Treasury turned down a request from Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, to fund the increase. Ministers believe that local authorities' budgets can be squeezed still further through efficiency savings and that many schools have balances in reserve.

They point to an increase of 1.1 per cent in cash terms for education. Both local authorities and governors say this falls far short of the money needed to cover inflation and a 1.5 to 2 per cent rise in pupil numbers.

Who is right? Are these the worst cuts for 30 years, as schools and authorities claim? Will governors find themselves sacking thousands of teachers? Tony Travers believes that, although this is the tightest settlement for many years, schools will cope, as they have done in the past, by increasing class sizes and natural wastage rather than by sacking teachers. The number of teachers has risen slightly since 1990 though the increase has not matched the 4 per cent rise in pupil numbers.

Mrs Shephard's forecast to Cabinet colleagues that 10,000 teachers' jobs are in danger is implausible. Next year, the experts say, will be the time when councils will be unable to balance their books and schools will have to sack teachers.

Even if the effect of this year's cuts proves less dramatic than the prediction, the political consequences may still be tricky for the Government. Parents do not believe ministerial assertions that class size does not affect standards. Governors and parents have a growing sense of their own power and of solidarity with teachers and heads. If they lose this year, they promise to fight on next.

The Treasury's decision to turn down Mrs Shephard's request for more money may still prove expensive.

So just what does a governor do?

Governors set budgets, appoint staff, oversee the curriculum and, where necessary, expel pupils.

Who is on the governing body?

Parents, teachers, local authority nominees and co-opted members. The head teacher is allowed to join, and almost always does. Numbers vary with size of school - a large school would have five parents, five council reps, two teachers, six co-optees, plusthe head.

How big is the governing body?

It varies from eight plus the head in a school with fewer than 100 pupils to 18 plus the head in one with 500 or more. There are 300,000 school governors.

How do you become a governor?

Parent governors are elected by parents; teacher governors by staff. Council nominates local authority members. These governors co-opt the others. Co-opted governors can be from local businesses or voluntary organisations, or may be parents whose children have left the school but who still want to be involved. All serve four years.

Is it a time-consuming job?

Governors meet at least once a term and must hold an annual parents' meeting. Much work is done through committees, which may meet several times each term.

And the pay?

There isn't any.