Belfast Telegraph

Schools must be protected from unsuitable governors

Schools need the best people to serve as governors, not political appointees with an ideological axe to grind, says John Hart

The Belfast Telegraph last week exposed the proposed appointment of governors to the board of a voluntary grammar school. Questions were raised over the background of some of those nominated by the Education Minister. The Governing Bodies Association (GBA) believes this is just one symptom of an underlying problem.

In spite of common misconceptions, voluntary grammars - which, together with controlled grammars, educate more than half of our post-primary pupils - are not defined by faith but rather by the independence they enjoy from government and administration.

At the core of this independence are the thousands of voluntary hours provided by governors, who are responsible for the high standards of education our young people enjoy. Without them, schools would not function. That is why having the right people at the heart of schools is so important.

For years, the Department of Education and schools worked in partnership to ensure boards enjoyed not only the expertise of a balanced set of skills, but people who displayed a passion for the school in which they served. Under current legislation, the minister is required to consult with schools about the person whom he is considering for appointment.

However, although the minister recommenced appointments after a two-year hiatus under his predecessor, he did so without properly consulting schools, as required under the 1986 Order.

The GBA considered legal action at the time but, in a bid to avoid further acrimony, we suggested working with officials to improve the consultation process before further appointments would be made. During those discussions, the only proposals were those made by the GBA.

In recommencing appointments in the absence of agreement, we seriously question the department's commitment to this issue.

In doing so, we have the extraordinary situation of one of Northern Ireland's top-performing schools being offered a person to serve on its board of governors who is wholly opposed to this type of school. What if the school was not a grammar? What if it was an integrated, or Irish-language school? Would the minister consider someone to serve who was on record as saying these schools were "outrageous"?

The department, in what little defence it has offered on this issue, makes vague references to 'diversity'. However, diversity is not governed by political whim. It is, rather, grounded in the standard heads of equality as laid out in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The department has yet to demonstrate how it judges the diversity of its appointments against those already sitting on the board.

Schools are significant organisations, with estate and budgets. They need the best people available - not those expected to implement a political agenda via a back door.

More than half of voluntary grammar schools are Catholic. A spokesman on behalf of Catholic bishops recently said that they will seek to select governors who will toe their political line.

These schools could be forgiven for feeling they are at the centre of a classic political pincer-movement.

Knowing what we know now, it would be interesting to know if the bishops still regard the politicisation of boards as acceptable.

No one disputes that there is a problem with under-performing schools in some sectors here. But there seems to be a determined effort to dismantle voluntary schools as part of some grander strategy to bring change to Northern Ireland education. The imposition of governors who oppose the ethos and approach is but one part of the plan.

This 'Year Zero' approach to policy-making poses a major challenge for both parents and politicians.

Parents must tell politicians they won't accept the highest-performing schools being battered by Government policy and weakened by governor appointment.

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