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New chief intends to stop the warfare

In-fighting, public spats and resignations - but governors' leader Jean McEntire, is unfazed, reports Laurence Pollock

The National Governors' Council's new chief executive hit the ground running when she arrived this autumn - and kept running.

Jean McEntire was on the rails for nearly three weeks visiting all nine NGC regions in England. After the whistlestop tour, she settled into her Birmingham office and began the task of getting the crisis-hit organisation back on the rails.

It is a job which few would envy. In the last year, the NGC's troubles have been publicly vented as leading figures resigned amid debates over radical changes in direction. The creation of Ms McEntire's post itself provoked controversy.

Jean McEntire believes she is free of baggage. She comes armed with common sense, lots of energy and broad experience in both the voluntary, membership sector and health and education. But she faces challenges not just from the NGC's internal wars but also from the Department for Education and Skills's moves to rein back on directly funding the organisation.

On top of that, the traditional division of labour between NGC and the National Association of Governors and Managers is eroding. NAGM's decision to accept local education authority associations as members, as well as individuals, is making the rivalry more explicit.

But the new chief executive is not daunted and she is clear about the priorities for her new employer.

"We have to represent governors on issues that are important to them, such as funding. We must also continue to share best practice and deliver advice without overwhelming people with information," she said.

"Thirdly, we need to network with other stakeholders, from LEA officers, other governor bodies and parents' organisations."

Her qualifications for these tasks include heading up education at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, where she was closely involved in policy development. She also pulled in funding from government grants, sponsorship, consultancy and sales, and handled the media.

Her credentials in education are strong too, having taught in three primary and middle schools and worked as a support officer in Derby and as a clerk to several governing bodies in Shropshire. Throw in experience as an Office for Standards in Education inspector and school governorships, including chair, and there are few gaps in her curriculum vitae. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the issue of funding does not seem to daunt her.

"The days of having a secure grant that covers all your needs are no longer there. We will bid for projects that fit in with government priorities but go beyond the DfES. For example, governors have a responsibility for sex education policy and the Department of Health has a lot of funding for work on teenage pregnancy.

"I believe governors should be consulted on this and perhaps we can set up a project together. The same could be done with the Health and Safety Executive and school transport."

Ms McEntire's approach to NAGM is equally straightforward: "My aim is to work collaboratively wherever we can - we share an agenda. My relationship is going to be a constructive one."

While her experience will help her develop these approaches, NGC veterans still wonder how she will navigate the eddies and whirlpools of the organisation itself. Ms McEntire has a couple of strong personal visions, and wants to improve communication with members via databases, email, the Web and regional structures. There may be some work to do here because at the end of October the NGC website still carried no reference to the new chief executive.

But her belief in electronic communication is also balanced by the human touch and an appreciation of local links. While some national organisations question the value of a regional tier, Jean McEntire is a firm supporter.

She demonstrated this by getting out of Birmingham and around the country. Her diary for the first weeks of September included London, Guildford, Taunton, Derby, Birmingham, Chelmsford, Chorley, Leeds and Hartlepool.

"This was incredibly useful. I met everyone face to face and picked up on views and issues. There was a lot of debate about regionalisation and a consensus towards more formal structures.

"There is a strong feeling that within the national umbrella a regional structure would have enormous benefits and help people to network on a local basis. There is too much time spent travelling to London.

"Consulting regionally would have a lot of benefits, for example on special needs. There are many people at this level who know so much. Regional special-interest forums would be able to pool expertise so we have a much more in-depth experience."

The price of Ms McEntire's regional tour was an exhausting start to her new job. Now she is getting her feet under the table at the NGC's new office in central Birmingham. With the pain endured and a new professional structure in place, the NGC might at last be ready to get back on track.

As the train gets going, Ms McEntire will be keeping an eagle eye out for any awkward leaves on the line.

The NGC's annual conference takes place tomorrow in Birmingham

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