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Surviving a difficult labour

Reva Klein watches the birth of the new National Governors' Council.

It has not been what you would call a painless birth. The complications have been legion, thanks to the attentions of those who, if not enemies, are not bosom pals either. But in spite of it all, the National Governors' Council, launched last Saturday, has emerged from its nine months' gestation and internal wrangling with energy, determination and ambitious aspirations. If it has managed to survive the difficult, protracted labour it has just been through, the rest ought to be a piece of cake.

Senior midwife is Simon Goodenough, whose unopposed appointment as chair follows his stewardship of the steering group. His unflappability and urbane diplomacy will have certainly been put to the test over the past months. That he has come through it widely respected is to his credit.

He talks of the NGC's remit being "a positive conduit for communicationIwith regular contact not only with local governors' associations but also, at various levels, with the Department for Education, the Office for Standards in Education and other groups in education and business to make governors an integral part of the policy-making process.

"Our role won't be a lobbying one, it will be talking, discussing, hearing what the pressures and thoughts are, getting to know and understand."

Listening to other people and getting things done are both skills at which he is adept. Simon Goodenough has worked in publishing for all of his professional life, and holds the distinction of having written the first history of the Women's Institute when he was 24. His interests include membership of the Carnegie UK Inquiry into Arts and Disability and he is a council member of the national Voluntary Arts Network. He believes, he says, in diversity, consensus, equality of opportunity, and in volunteers and professionals working together.

He started his own company soon after his former boss, Robert Maxwell, died. For the past 12 years he has lived in a former vicarage in Crediton, Devon with his wife, two daughters, a son and quite a few lop-eared rabbits, which his wife breeds commercially. They share the stables from where he runs his business.

He is an earnest and, at the same time, disarmingly charming man who inspires trust and belief in what he says. These days a lot of it is about what he believes governors need and how he believes they might best get it. His two years as chair and parent governor of the local comprehensive that his children attend has given him insights into the world of schools and governing. His "tremendous battle" with Devon County Council many years ago to get his daughter Hattie into mainstream schools that had never admitted Down's syndrome children before taught him a lot about bureaucracy and entrenched attitudes, and the unique understanding that parents have of their own children.

That same resolution, maybe even mild-mannered bloody mindedness, is discernible in his approach to the disparate voices of governors with whom he hopes to be involved.

"If the steering group is anything to go by, the NGC will embrace pretty passionate opposites. We've been lucky. It's important to bring strong opinions out into an open forum."

Goodenough's idea of luck is vaguely masochistic. The passions that his vision of a new governors' organisation have aroused have been strong to gale force.

One of the elected members, Martin Corrick, resigned because of "fundamental problemsIwhen it became clear to me that the steering group wanted to produce a fait accompli, a finished constitution at the conference on October 29, and not open it up to debate. It was agreed by a majority at a meeting in May that the steering group would agree with the draft constitution, that we would speak as one voice and not present individual, alternative points of view to the conference. I couldn't agree to that so I had to resign. As an elected person, I felt I was entitled to speak my mind."

Simon Goodenough refutes the allegations that anyone was being gagged. "We agreed at the first steering group meeting that we would work to consensus, that we'd keep individual views to ourselves."

He also denies Martin Corrick's claims that the constitution was undemocratically drafted, stating that a first draft was sent out to 150 governors in all of the local authority areas in late spring for consultation.

The responses were reviewed and a revised constitution was drafted in August and sent out to the governors again, this time with the steering group's message that the draft represented a consensus and that it hoped they could "live with that". If they couldn't, governors were invited to write in with further amendments. "I've received no amendments," says Simon Goodenough.

Corrick's dissent with the NGC goes further. He says the structure of the new NGC is unworkable. Membership is to be composed of representatives of local governors' associations, not individual governors. There were 21 member associations represented at the inaugural meeting in Birmingham last weekend and a further 17 governors' forums are in the process of developing into full associations. Within a year the council expects to be able to consult two-thirds of all governors through local associations.

Martin Corrick thinks the concept is wrong-headed. The financial burden on the associations will be too great to bear, for one thing, he says. But that's not all. "This is a structure tied to local authorities. Governors' associations are LEA creatures, set up for LEA schools.

"In the past few years, there has been a power shift away from authorities towards schools. We shouldn't tie a national organisation to LEAs which are a seriously endangered species. And what happens to grant-maintained schools?" Simon Goodenough says that each local association of governors "has its own way of shaping its affairs to suit its area. Most embrace GM schools in their constitution. And the NGC also embraces all governors' associations in its constitution."

Martin Corrick has not been the only voice of disgruntlement. The relationship between some members of National Association of Governors and Managers and the embryonic NGC has also been a colourful one. At the first NGC meeting in Eynsham last January, both NAGM and the governor training network AGIT were elected on to the new steering group as ex officio members without voting rights.

There was a falling out very quickly with NAGM mainly because, as chair Peter Morris explains, "their avowed aim is to be a voice for the governors. We feel they deserve a better service. We provide a hell of a lot more to members than just being a voice for them." Things flared up between NAGM and the NGC, the former proclaiming that it would not sit on the steering committee or join as a member.

But not everyone on NAGM has taken such a hard line. Executive member Celia Jordan felt that "it would be bad for NAGM if we weren't there. I've always said that if governors get a better service, it must be a good thing. I see it as NAGM being the information-giving arm, AGIT the training arm and the NGC liaising with the Government."

Celia Jordan went to one steering group meeting. Since then, there has been no NAGM representation. The official reason is that NAGM is not compatible with the NGC because the new organisation will only deal with governing bodies and NAGM serves both individual governors and governing bodies.

Even so, Peter Morris was at the launch, despite his view that "governors aren't falling over themselves to get involved in another new organisation. The trouble is that the more voices you are, the easier it is to ignore them all because you know they're not united."

AGIT's chairman, David Smith has, on the other hand, been on the steering group as his group is open to the idea of a single governors' organisation. "We don't see the emergence of another organisation as destroying our aims. What we are concerned about is the volume of paper falling on governors' doorsteps. We need to work together to make things easier for governors, which means addressing the deluge of material coming to them from different organisations."

Will the future bring a single, effective organisation that represents the 350,000 or so governors around the country? It's too early to tell. The NGC is still in its swaddling clothes and, as Simon Goodenough says, "I don't know what's involved until I get there. It all depends on what governing bodies want.

"But I believe very strongly that they need encouragement for the sake of their schools. They are a tremendous resource for their schools but are so oppressed with all the work they have to do. I hope we can give them a greater feeling that they matter, that they're worth consulting."

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