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The big news is no one is fighting

Karen Thornton reports on a shocking lack of disagreement at the National Governors' Council's annual meeting.

BUSINESSLIKE, purposeful and mostly amicable - it feels like a long time since anyone has been able to describe a National Governors' Council meeting in this way.

But after the resignations, in-fighting and back-biting of the last year, it seems the organisation created to be a national voice for governors has finally stopped navel-gazing and started looking outwards again.

Certainly the resolutions presented by local associations at the annual meeting this week in London were firmly focused on directing the NGC towards more purposeful activities.

Sheffield called for the roles of the chair and vice-chair to be redefined to make them more manageable. Camden required the executive to get its act together on basic policy work. In other words, it should analyse Department for Education and Skills' consultations and documents, offer "steers", report on meetings and summarise current issues for members.

Both resolutions were agreed, as was a third from Hackney which reiterated Camden's concerns about the policy agenda, and advocated an independent and campaigning role for the NGC.

It also demanded the executive completes an agreed strategic plan "as a matter of urgency", and called for a ring-fenced "governance" section of the Government's Standards Fund to pay for expenses, clerking, governor training and information.

Richard Thompson (Hackney), said it spelled out the steps for the newly-elected executive to take, and insisted it was a supportive measure. "There are 360,000 volunteer governors providing pound;1 billion of free contributions which we are putting in to support our schools, our children and our common future," he said.

"We have key responsibilities in schools. There is a role for associations at the local level, and there is a key national role for the NGC. We need to be sitting at the big table and getting some reality into the thinking of some civil servants."

Financially, the NGC is in good shape, despite the DfES's gradual withdrawal of direct funding. The accounts presented at the meeting showed a surplus of pound;167,493 - pretty much an average year's expenditure.

Despite this, most members agreed to dig deeper into their pockets by approving a doubling of subscriptions to pound;4 per school; several delegates said it should be higher. The measure will raise around pound;20,000 extra to set against a pound;40,000 reduction in DfES funding, said Susan Marsh, treasurer.

Sandra Tomlinson (Sheffield), won the first applause of the day for urging associations to "kick up a fuss" with local education authorities that do not support them.

"We are the cheapest consultancy they will ever have," she said, adding:

"You haven't got a national voice as governors unless you are members of the NGC. Belonging to a national organisation gives you clout locally."

However, it was not all sweetness and light. Representatives from both Devon and Worcestershire said their associations would be reviewing their membership as a result of the hike in subscriptions.

And a debate on whether the chair should be chosen by fellow executive members or the council's membership also highlighted continuing divisions. There was narrow agreement (57 to 42) on retaining the current arrangements - meaning new chairman Neil Davies is the first in the NGC's history not to have been elected by its membership. But the new executive is likely to review the situation.

Stanley Dent (Haringey) defended the existing arrangements, "simply because we can't possibly know who is best suited to be chair". Carole Thomson (Oxfordshire) agreed, noting the importance of having the right person for the job.

But Dennis Roberts (Sheffield), said the job of chair was so important that the post should be directly elected, while Laurie Bullas (Bury) expressed concerns about "control and accountability".

There were some goodbyes. Chris Gale (Swindon) stood down as chair and from the executive. She insisted she had enjoyed the post, despite having "very little life" outside for the past three years. And Jack Morrish, 88, one of the founding fathers of the organisation, and due to step down as a school governor next January, was made honorary life president in recognition of his long service.

It was telling, though, how much relief was generated just because the meeting was reasonably well run. Patricia Astwood (Calderdale), who admitted nearly "losing the will to live" at the last meeting, congratulated members on the different tone of this gathering.

Combined with the appointment of new chief executive Jean McEntire, it suggests a more professional future beckons for the NGC. There was clear support for Martin Seaton's (Southwark) comment that "it is not a volunteer's job running a national organisation".

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