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Old note strikes a sombre chord;Last Word;Opinion

Retreat from education, part three. Having removed last year - as already chronicled in this space - to a Gloucestershire hideaway cheek-by-jowl with the village school, we established a larger base up the hill in December. It was bought from the departing (and much-missed) playgroup leader. Cue for article on the new bureaucratic burdens of playgroup-leading. And before you could say early learning, I had been enrolled as a governor back at the school.

Welcomed with several hundredweight of the sort of bumph I had filed away when I gave up governing in inner London 10 years ago, I turned up the day before half-term at my first working event - an intensive in-service day for staff and governors on the school development plan.

Suffice to say it was constructive, open, hard-working and friendly, with teachers, parents and other governors working flat-out with the new head and a county inspector to articulate vision and targets well before an autumn inspection.

I didn't fully appreciate how successful the day had been until I returned home to an amazing coincidence. In my absence my husband had been transferring several crates of books to new shelves, and a scrap of paper from an ancient notebook had fallen out. I picked it up and read it as I came in the front door.

"S...S... rang," the 14-year-old message began, in handwriting I recognised from my days at The TES, "Re: governors meeting.

"Won't be attending - and have been asked by the union to ask you not to discuss Hargreaves Report without teacher representation."

The message was of course from the teacher governor, and I withhold the name not just to protect the guilty. He was (is) a good man and a dedicated teacher, but times were hard, the Inner London Teachers' Association was harder, and 1984 saw some of the worst of the teacher action which wracked schools - and wrecked education - during Sir Keith Joseph's last days as Education Secretary.

My first reaction to this sudden and timely reminder of life as a governor last time round was to reflect on how far schooling, governing and working relationships had improved since then. My second was to go back to David Hargreaves' report for the Inner London Education Authority on improving secondary schools, to remind myself what the teachers had objected to, and to find out if it had anything to contribute to the contemporary standards crusade.

However low teacher morale may seem today, and however sweeping contemporary tirades against shoddiness - and even darkness - in the classroom, the educational climate has been transformed on all fronts since it hit rock-bottom in the mid-Eighties.

Teachers' action against Sir Keith Joseph's stringent economic line stopped short of all-out strikes, but involved withholding goodwill. That meant refusing to cover for absent colleagues or attend out-of-school meetings and, in badly-hit areas such as inner London, a complete breakdown in school life. Children came in and were sent home like yo-yos from uncovered classes, a deputy head in one secondary school worked full-time sending out 11th-hour warning notes, and working parents despaired (which they admitted privately to governors, but didn't like to say outright in front of teachers in those dark days).

Our governors' meeting was included in the ban on extra-curricular activity although the teachers recognised (and probably feared) its relevance to them. As chair, I made sure governors discussed Hargreaves anyway, although that wasn't enough to press the staff into implementation in the prevailing climate.

The Hargreaves Report was conceived at a time when local education authorities could develop policies of their own, and was one of several outstanding documents commissioned in the last days of the ILEA by Frances Morrell as leader and Sir William Stubbs as education officer, back in the days when he was still plain Bill.

Political and educational imperatives were to pursue achievement from the vantage point of working-class children, black children and girls, and Hargreaves' brief was to examine the secondary curriculum and organisation with special reference to pupil underachievement and dissatisfaction with school - a theme that remains at the heart of rhetoric and reform. More than a hundred recommendations formed the basis of a five-year plan aimed at combating school rejection, improving pupil achievement and attendance, supporting teachers and heads, strengthening the curriculum and involving parents.

It was a pity so few London teachers wanted to go along with it, because what came later was a good deal more threatening, from Kenneth Baker's national curriculum to his answer to the "goodwill" tactic - legislation setting out how many hours in a year a teacher should work. He was able to tear up the teachers' pay and conditions machinery because everyone was sick of disruptive action.

Now the present Government seems ready to have another go at the working year, increasing its length in return for a pay rise, which could make sounder sense of a host of activities, from governor meetings to school drama, music and sport, as well as the curriculum.

Whether ministers and their advisers have any mind now to allow local authorities to develop their own educational policies is another matter, although the most innovative initiatives will bear no fruit if the industrial and political climate is against them. And that goes for education action zones too.

I am aware that the powers and duties of school governors have grown in a sobering way since I last had a seat on the board, and note from a recent TES governors' page that OFSTED plans to grade us on a seven-point scale for performance in our strategic role. There is nothing like a new challenge, and I promise to do the same for them.

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