Opinion: LEA governors under threat

The debates about schools and education so far in this parliament have largely focused around free schools and academies, with occasional diversion into the content of the curriculum and the E-Baccalaureate. I’ve touched on some of these issues before, but just whilst there’s still time (just!) for a change in the Education Bill as it passes through the committee stage in the House of Lords, I wanted to highlight the threat posed in the Bill to school governors appointed by Local Education Authorities. I should say at this point that I have been an LEA appointed governor for nearly eight years, and that my views are informed by my experiences of that role.

Amongst other things, Clause 37 of the Bill removes the requirement for school governing bodies to include LEA appointees, with the intention of allowing the school to constitute the membership of a governing body based on its needs. As pointed out by Dan Rogerson MP in the debates in the Commons, doing so risks losing the experience, continuity and long-term thinking that LEA governors bring, and potentially removes counterweights to the school management team or a ‘captured’ chair of governors.

Sadly, Mr Rogerson’s amendment to this clause fell in the Commons, but a more limited amendment – to allow a single LEA appointee if they have skills needed by the governing body – was passed in the Lords last week. I would like to see further amendments which would allow the retention of LEA appointed governors as present, but improve the accountability of their role and reduce the party-political aspect their appointment.

But it’s not just me who thinks that LEA appointed governors add something to governing bodies that elected or co-opted governors do not. I raised this issue at a recent meeting of the secondary school governing body to which I am an LEA appointee, and there was unanimous agreement that LEA governors should be retained, including from the headteacher.
Their views were that LEA governors brought a wealth of experience that other governors did not have: that they were able to ask questions and propose solutions that the parent-elected and staff-elected governors could not; that they had links and contacts with the local authority that helped overcome the occasionally strained relations with the school; and that LEA governors were able to think about processes and strategy beyond immediate horizon.

Because LEA governors didn’t have an immediate constituency interest (a child, a career, a skill or project focus), they can help the school plan for the long-term and address issues with wider community interest (such as, for example, whether to enter into a federation, adopt a speciality or convert to an academy). However, although there were some well known political affiliations around the table, it was recognised that ‘political appointees’ as governors could be divisive and potentially have a conflict of interest, and that unless they were an existing governors, local councillors shouldn’t be LEA governors.

So, LEA governors have their uses, and despite the government’s desire to free headteachers and schools from local government, they should recognise that LEA governors can add a great deal to the success of a school and keep a reasonable allocation of them on governing bodies. However, they should be made more accountable to the local residents that they ultimately represent – perhaps some form of report-back mechanism could be introduced. At the same time, the crude dividing up of LEA places on governing bodies that happens in some areas according to the political composition of the local council should stop – it doesn’t help schools and just looks a bit grubby.

Alex Feakes is a Liberal Democrat council for Forest Hill ward in the London Borough of Lewisham and an LEA appointed secondary school governor. He occasionally blogs at www.alexfeakes.org and tweets as @alexfeakes.

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7 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '11 - 11:58am

    I agree – there is very much a danger of the governors of a school becoming a closed clique, and so it’s a valuable safeguard for the LEA to have the right to appoint governors of ts own choosing.

    I have myself argued in party circles the case in favour of “faith schools”, often to a great deal of hostility. However, it has always been part of my argument that these schools come under LEA supervision and the LEA has the right to appoint some of their governors, that is, I support the existence of the traditional Voluntary Aided LEA school, not the foundation of new “faith schools” without the LEA oversight.

    Declaring an interest in this, my wife was for six years the Chair of governors of a LEA Catholic School, in fact in the same borough where Alex is a councillor. What I learnt from her was that this idea, which you find splashed all across the Tory-supporting media, that the LEA “controls” schools and is some huge weight on them, is nonsense. My wide, in conjunction with the head and the other governors, had a great deal of say over what went on on the school. Myself, at that time a councilor in the borough, had none. Indeed, one of the things I found frustrating about being a councillor was that, though I took it on hoping to be able to contribute to education policy on the borough, it did not give me any opportunity to influence what went on in schools internally, the LEA’s role was purely one of resource planning and support services. My wife found the support and advice the LEA gave her, particularly over a number of difficult issues which you are going to get in an inner city school, was very valuable, and she was grateful not to be working “on her own” on these things.

    I agree with Alex on the crude dividing up of governor places on political lines. During my time as a councillor in that borough, I was always told the LEA would be reviewing this and coming up with a better way of finding LEA governors, but it never did. It seemed to be part of the way the majority party had its tentacles everywhere that it appointed LEA governors purely from its own party activists, with the concession that the other parties would be thrown a few places they were expected to appoint in a similar way. If the appointment of LEA governors were opened up and made more visible, it would show up what nonsense all this “free schools” stuff really is. If you want to have a say in running schools, you can do so by becoming a school governor, and if you want a more traditional curriculum, uniform, or whatever, then it’s you as one of governors deciding that, not the LEA, however much the Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph etc may report otherwise, so why go to all this fuss and bother and expense of creating “free schools” to do it? The really big problem is finding the people willing to do it – but a start can be made by widening the circles of appointment beyond party activists.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '11 - 12:00pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    My wide

    Typo – should be “My wife” – I’m glad she isn’t a reader of LDV!

  • David Langshaw 28th Jun '11 - 9:05pm

    (Declaration of interest – I have been a Governor since 1981, and variously Chair and IEB member thereafter, for three schools in all.)

    One of the problems I have noticed in recent years is that far too much time is spent worrying about who has *appointed* a Governor, rather than whether the Governor is any use! Ed Balls, in one of his more bizarre missives, wrote suggesting that LA Governors should be responsible for “standards”, as if none of the other Governors had ever thought of it before. A lot of recent initiatives place a lot of emphasis on “parent governors”, who, in some cases, are beginning to think of themselves as either an “elite” or as a “political” grouping on the Governing body. It causes some confusion when other Governors (from the wider community) have children at the School but are not regarded as “parent governors” because they were not elected by the other parents!

    Onc upon a time, being an LA Governor was a sort of “honours system”. Places were given to Party members as a sort of Badge – senior councillors got given the Technical College or the Grammar Schools, others got the remaining secondary schools, and the leaflet deliverers got the Primary Schools. Consequently, some LA governors got a very bad reputation for not turning up to meetings, and for not taking the role seriously. As Chair I have had to write a few “sacking” letters in my time, telling Councillors that they were no longer on the Board because of serial non-attendance.

    Mercifully, those days are gone now, but most Chairs of Governors take the precaution of “suggesting” suitable candidates for the LA to appoint. If not, then the situation arises as it did at one school where all the LA governors were paid employees of the Council – which is a ridiculous state of affairs.

    Who appoints governors is irrelevant – the good ones will soon prove themselves. That said, I still maintain that the best work I ever did for thje old Liberal Party was knocking on doors and getting seven people (supporters, but not all members) to agree to be governors when Berkshire went into NOC in 1981, and we “had” to provide two governors for every school in Reading.

  • Old Codger Chris 29th Jun '11 - 2:54am

    Since the coalition is trying – for better or worse – to obliterate the role of local authorities in schools (abetted by some Tory LAs themselves) it’s logical to remove LA governors.

  • @Old Codger Chris is absolutely right – in a couple of years some Councils will have precisely zero secondary schools under their control and a rapidly diminishing number of primaries.

    Have you not noticed?

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