The friendly exterior of Chris Gale, the new chair of the National Governors' Council, is the coating for a woman of steel. Hilary Wilce reports.
MANNERS matter, says Chris Gale, who is extremely polite about her tough fillet of lunchtime fish even though, as a former caterer, she has a keen interest in food. It prompts her to lob cooking tips into the conversation between a discussion of local authority funding and the qualities that make a good school governor.
Such manners, allied with a natural friendliness and warmth, will stand her in good stead as chair of the National Governors' Council.
But no one should be deceived. Tom Axon, head of The Ridgeway School, Swindon, where she is chair of governors, says: "She is a cheery and courteous person who is totally non-threatening in the way she goes about things, but she is certainly not Mrs Average. She is a very, very determined person, indefatigable in pursuing an idea, and will go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of something she believes in."
What she believes in is the paramount importance of having a strong, independent voice for governing bodies. She thinks governors are undervalued and that ministers' failure to turn up to the NGC's annual general conference for two years in a row underlines this. She also believes that governors know more than most people how it is at the grassroots. The Government can therefore expect to have its ear bent on things such as how much less money is getting through to schools than it likes to trumpet in its public announcements.
Ahead of her lie challenging times as governors grapple with changing responsibilities, many of which, she says, are far from clear cut.
"There's a distinct lack of clarity in the employment situation, for example." Governors are to be involved in setting performance targets for heads, but what will happen when there is failure to agree. Test cases in the courts? "After all, the governing body is not the employer in community schools. If the idea is to make schools more autonomous, then why not go the whole hog and make the governing body the employer?"
Likewise, the requirement that governors be more involved in ensuring school exclusions are justified has inevitably brought new pressures and costs, "although I'm very much for it in principle. I believe it concentrates minds and makes people think much harder about what can be done to work with students like these."
She would like to see governors' hands strengthened with more governing bodies mentoring each other, more networking of chairs of governors, and more whole-governing body training, and will work with other governor organisations to establish a shared telephone-advice line.
The NGC was launched in 1994 as the national voice for school governing bodies. Its members are local governor
associations, and it now has membership in about half of all local authority areas.
Chris Gale first became a
parent-governor a year before. "I'd actually thrown the form in the bin, but someone said to me: how about it? You always have plenty to say when you come along to our meetings." She moved on to being chai of
governors, where she helped steer the school through a fierce fight for grant-maintained status, sacking a deputy, and handling a sensitive gender-switch issue ("Sir Becomes Miss" cried the local paper), and took on the chair of her local governors'
On the way she also collected a governorship at a local feeder primary school, and another at an inner-city school trying to get itself off special measures, which, she says, has been "fascinating".
Before all that, schools were nothing to her "beyond, I suppose, always being a fairly vociferous parent".
Trained as a nurse and midwife, she became a theatre sister at the Royal Free Hospital, in London, before giving up to help her GP husband run his practice. Four children later, she launched her own successful catering business.
Now 56, with all her children through university and out in the world, with her successful catering business voluntarily wound up, and having recently had to cope with her husband's life-threatening coronary ("which really does make you face up to what you value in life"), she intends to bring all this experience to bear on her stint at the helm of the country's governing bodies.
This is a distinct switch of style from Pat Petch, the former chair. "Pat and I are probably different in every way. Pat has a lawyer's mind. She is brilliant on a platform. I'm the world's greatest networker. I like to bring people together."
There are other differences, too. Chris Gale steered her school into GM status, something to which the council has been traditionally antagonistic.
"Governors are pragmatic," she says, "they go for what works." She has experience of business and partnership, and makes clear her impatience with rule-bound ideologists and inept local government officers and officials. At the same time, she is quick to lavish praise where she feels it is due. Some local authorities are excellent, she says, "and I have the highest possible regard for teachers. I really, really do. The staff at Ridgeway are incomparable."
But, she adds quickly, she is no Pollyanna. She never shirks a fight, and in a local battle the leader of Labour-led Swindon council was once moved to shake her fists at her.
Her appointment has been warmly greeted by other governor organisations.
"It's her wish and mine to see the two principal governors' organisations working together," says John Adams, chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers.
"Her predecessor's agenda was to create the profile of the NGC. Chris sees her role as strengthening the team."
Pat Petch says: "Chris is very experienced. We've worked closely together and I have a lot of confidence in her. She is different from me, but it's probably good for organisations to have these changes and anyway the NCG is a team, so its views will be changing all the time, depending on who's on the executive."
What doesn't change, she says - and Chris Gale would certainly agree - is its job standing at the sharp end of education, and being a voice for what will and won't work in improving standards for children in school.