And then there was uproar...

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Karen Thornton reports on the National Governors' Council's extraordinary conference in Birmingham

IT looked like being a critical but predictable meeting.

Representatives of the 70-plus area associations affiliated to the National Governors' Council lined up to take a pop - more like an AK47 - at the Department for Education and Employment's proposals for reforming their roles and responsibilities.

Their concerns were familiar and already much rehearsed on these pages. They don't want their involvement in personnel matters, including staffing appointments and dismissals, reduced. They want to help draw up the budget and link it to educational priorities, not just agree the headteacher's plans.

They see no reason for reducing the size of governing bodies and allowing schools to group under one board - especially as only last year they increased membership and desegregated existing joint boards, on ministerial orders.

They welcome the recognition that they can't be expected to carry out health and safety inspections - so why now lumber them with drawing up accessibility plans and ensuring nutritional standards in school meals?

"It's not strategic!" was the ironic call from the floor.

A gate-keeping mechanism to scrutinise any future additions to governors' responsibilities would be a positive development - so long as board members have a say.

There were mixed views about Education Secretary David Blunkett and local authorities having emergency powers to remove failing boards and replace them with so-called supergovernors. What happens when authorities are themselves failing or weak? And isn't the Secretary of State too distant from local affairs to make such a decision?

Many were unhappy with the document itself, describing it as ill-conceived, ill-thought out, and inconsistent. The fact that it has not been sent to every governing body continues to irk, as does the poor quality of the questionnaire.

So far all very predictably critical. Then Ian hrystie from Hampshire stood up, and - by NGC standards - there was uproar.

"We have had comments deploring the consultation and commenting on the flaws in the document. We propose that the DFEE withdraw this document until a proper needs analysis has been done with governors and interested parties. Then a new consultation can follow, and legislation and guidance as necessary," he said.

Some, like Mary Wallis-Jones (Camden), supported the document being withdrawn, but saw no need for any consultations at all.

Others, such as John Bailey (Southampton), Dennis Roberts (Sheffield), and Kate Christie (Merton) pointed out that the DFEE's consultations were in part a response to increasing complaints from 'ordinary' governors about burgeoning workload. Conference representatives were hardworking, self-assured, confident - not typical of many of their colleagues back in schools.

"We do say workload has increased and become unacceptable. We should be looking at what we can delegate. We get bogged down in detail rather than taking a strategic overview," said John Bailey.

"We have been going through this exercise in my school, and met some resistance, because the implication is that the office staff will be doing a lot more copying, because governors won't be."

Noel Thompson (Brent) and Antony Longworth (Bury) said rejecting the consultations would be politically inept. "It's the first time in 20 years as a governor that I can remember a consultation of this type asking us what we want. It's flawed, it's paternalistic, but it's something we can build on. Politically, it would be disastrous to throw it away," said Mr Longworth.

Thirty-one voted in favour of the withdrawal of the consultation document - with 11 against and 20 abstaining. An independent needs analysis drew 26 votes in favour, nine against and 22 abstentions.

The proposals are at www.dfee. gov.ukgovernorconsult.htm. Or ring 0845 602 2260 for printed copies. Consultations close on March 14.

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