New voice tests its timbre

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Bob Doe reports on last weekend's inaugural meeting of the National Governors' Council. The new National Governors' Council launched last weekend has already committed itself to campaigning against the underfunding of schools.

Particular targets will be the failure to meet teacher pay awards in full, the additional costs of the new arrangements on special needs in mainstream schools and the scrapping of Section 11 support for ethnic minority pupils.

The new council is already claiming links with a third of the estimated 350,000 governors in England and Wales. And a clear sign of the importance others attach to the setting up of this new voice for governors was the presence of senior representatives of national and local government at its inaugural meeting in Birmingham last weekend.

Anthea Millett, this week appointed as chief executive of the new Teacher Training Agency, attended as did Robin Squires, the junior education minister. He called the NGC "an exciting venture" of great value not only to governors but also to the Government.

"We need to know what governors are thinking. We need a feel for your views, your worries and your hopes," he told the meeting. Ministers are known to have been taken aback by governors' tacit support for the the boycott of national curriculum tests. The Department for Education provided some of the funding that enabled the NGC to be set up. Esso and the computer company RM Nimbus sponsored the inaugural meeting.

Mr Squires said: " We need good channels of communication so that even when we don't agree with you we know what we are disagreeing about and why."

NGC delegates were quick to demand from the minister an assurance that more governors would be appointed in future to government quangos such as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Funding Agency for Schools.

Mr Squires said some of those appointed to these bodies were governors. In the case of the FAS, support for the principle of grant-maintained status was a primary requirement for membership. One delegate later pointed out that the work of the FAS has considerable impact on local authority schools as well as on GM ones.

The minister warned the new council that it had to be able to speak for all governors, including those in grant-maintained schools. The constitution leaves it up to the local associations of governors that make up the NGC to decide whether or not to include GM schools.

Mrs Saxon Spence, the new chair of the Council of Local Education Authorities and of the Association for County Council's education committee, hoped the new council would provide "a powerful voice for education".

Graham Lane, chairman of the education committee of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities hoped the NGC would work with local government associations. The AMA this week published proposals to limit the powers of governors in locally managed schools (see story, page 5).

Sir John Banham, chairman of the Local Government Commission reviewing the future shape of many education authorities, underlined the importance of improved education standards to Britain's industrial competitiveness and social harmony.

"A great deal is riding on what you can do," he told the governors' council. "For too long education has been regarded as a cost and not an investment, " said the former controller of the Audit Commission and director general of the CBI. Referring to the higher levels of funding in independent schools he said, " We offer a world-class education in this country; the trouble is, only 10 per cent of children get it. If you want to know what the right thing to do for poor kids is, look at what happens to rich kids."

Introduced to the conference as "a long standing thorn in the side of governments" Sir John was asked what advice he would give the new governors' council. "When in doubt, tell the truth," was the lesson he had learnt. "There is no mileage in telling politicians what they want to hear."

Governors had to "have the guts to say what you think" but to base it on firm evidence and stay in touch with the real world.

Simon Goodenough, a representative from Devon, was elected unopposed to chair the new body, by the 21 full member associations present at the Birmingham launch. There are a further 30 or more governor groups and forums registered with the council but not yet sufficiently independent to be eligible for full membership.

The NGC expects 15 more local associations to be launched in the next six months. This meant the NGC was already in touch with 10,000 governing bodies and 120,000 governors; more than a third of all governing bodies in England and Wales.

"Within six to 12 months the NGC should aim to be able to consult effectively with double that number and to set an early target for being able to consult through local associations with all 24,500 governing bodies in England and Wales," said Simon Goodenough.

It is too early for the NGC to have developed any clear policy but there was a clear groundswell of concern at the meeting about school funding.

It was Pat Petch, a representative from Richmond elected as a vice-chairman of the NGC, who proposed that the full funding of teachers' pay, the cost of the new Code of Practice on special needs and the scrapping of Section 11 funding should be immediate campaigning priorities. She also suggested the NGC should be consulting members on their views on compulsory acts of worship and on making better use of Office for Standards in Education inspections.

Other delegates called for governor training funds to be explicitly identified in the support funding given to schools; for elected parent governors to be disqualified if their child left the school; for an end to expensive promotion of GM status; a higher profile for governing bodies; the avoidance of school-by-school wage bargaining; no more July to September bogus consultation periods; league tables to be made fairer; an end to political appointments to governing bodies; and a more positive statement by the NGC of what a good education entailed.

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