Just don't mention the mother-in-law

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Is Anne Gibbins the oldest governor in England? Karen Thornton interviews a veteran of school agendas

ANNE Gibbins was once introduced to a governing body as "Michael Palin's mother-in-law".

"I was furious," says the 90-year-old great-grandmother, whose daughter Helen is married to the actor, traveller and Monty Python star.

As a long-serving governor committed to children with special educational needs, her own record should have spoken for itself.

But now she is at last contemplating leaving Ernulf community school in St Neots, Cambridgeshire. She has been a governor since it opened in 1972 and is determined to make it through her final term which is up in 2004.

"I'm very aged," she says wryly. "I thought the school might be ashamed of having such a governor. I thought I had better retire. I rang the chair and said you can't have an old woman of 90, and he said, 'no, you are not 90!'"

Dr Joe Pajak, Ernulf's fourth headteacher during Mrs Gibbins' tenure as governor, said: "Anne is a fantastic woman and an inspiration to all of us.

She is so focused and positive, but also challenging, everything you want in a governor.

"For those of us who are younger, it teaches us a lesson - that it is not age-related. She's got more energy than people 30 years her junior.

"She gives up a lot of time to the school but is able to be a critical friend. She's always there to give her years of experience, expertise, knowledge and interest in young people."

Born in Birmingham in March 1913, Mrs Gibbins attended the city's King Edward high school for girls, then went to Dartford PE college and taught in several schools. She got married and moved to Cambridgeshire in 1938, becoming a farmer's wife and raising three daughters. Her husband died in 1963.

While always interested in education and schools, the need to find one for her three daughters spurred her to investigate the subject more closely.

"We had thought we would send the girls to boarding school, but with three children we couldn't afford it.

"In the end, we sent them to Perse school. It was very well known and academic, and they have all done very well."

As an independent Cambridgeshire county councillor for eight years until 1974, she started out as an education authority governor. When she lost her council seat, she was co-opted on to school governing bodies.

In addition to serving at Ernulf for 31 years, including a spell as chair, she has given her services to two other secondaries, a private school, seven special schools, and various pupil-referral units.

In her spare time, she wrestles with a computer bought for her by her grandchildren. But she admits to preferring gardening when the sun is shining.

"Ernulf has changed so much for the better. We started as a building site, we were a building site for years and had a very young staff. I was chair at that time.

"It has come on tremendously through difficult conditions. It's very child-centred, has a great reputation, and is very much part of the community," she says.

The school's extensive after-school and adult education provision means it is sometimes difficult to get into the car park in the evening, she notes.

She has seen big improvements in provision for special needs children, and better involvement of parents in schools. "When I first came to Cambridgeshire, I went to a school in the Peterborough area where there were notices saying 'no parents beyond this point'. They didn't like having parents about," she says.

"I think there is much more participation between parents and schools now.

Educating children is a joint job, so that's a good thing."

She adds: "I wish more people would be governors. It is very rewarding, although working in special educational needs can also be frustrating."

"I will miss it very much when I go, I enjoy it so much. I would do anything for Ernulf, I'm very proud of the school."

Do you know anyone older serving on a governing body? Tel: 020 7782 3282 or email: karen.thornton@tes.co.uk

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