Mark Whitehead reports on the growth of the National Governors Council
Dark warnings were to be heard during its gestation: it was going to be a difficult birth and an even more troublesome infancy. Yet even the sternest nursemaids now agree: the National Governors Council turned out to be a bonny baby and, as it approaches its second annual general meeting, is growing into a healthy and energetic toddler.
The council's development since its humble beginnings in 1994 has been impressive. Only a handful of local authority-based governors' associations helped plan the new organisation, but by the time of its inaugural meeting later that year, 21 had signed up. Now, a year later, the total has more than doubled to 47 associations, representing local authority and grant maintained schools, and perhaps 50 by the time of the annual meeting in Manchester starting tomorrow, with a further 20-odd preparing to join. The NGC, non-existent two years ago, can thus now claim to represent roughly half the 340,000 governors running the schools of England and Wales.
The reason for the explosion of activity is not hard to trace. Governors, as a result of the Government's education reforms, suddenly became very important people, and they needed a voice.
Phil Smith, chairman of the Association of Leicestershire Governors, which joined the NGC last year says: "Governors recognised that the responsibilities we had been given were awesome. We realised the entire school budget was down to us. Teachers are hired and fired by the governors. The school's development plan which sets the agenda and direction of the school has to be agreed by the governors. We needed an up-front organisation fighting for us."
An organisation already existed in the shape of the National Association of Governors and Managers, set up 25 years previously. But some believed the NAGM, despite its reputation as a reliable body always at hand to provide practical help and advice for governors in the form of briefing papers, a magazine and a helpline, was failing to speak forcefully on their behalf.
Members of the NAGM, in their turn, questioned whether the new organisation could represent governors nationwide and claimed that its structure, based on local authority boundaries, would undermine its independence. Ian Rule, NAGM secretary, says: "The NGC is progressing, but whether they will ever succeed in representing all areas of the country remains to be seen.
"It is important that local organisations of governors are seen to be independent of local authorities, otherwise it is the local authority's views that will go up to the national council not those of governors."
Concrete examples of how exactly the NGC's independence is allegedly compromised, are however, difficult to pin down. And in any case, say the council's supporters, similar criticisms must apply at least as much to the NAGM which has a very limited structure for channeling its members' views from grass roots to leadership.
Simon Goodenough, NGC chairman and its leading force since the earliest days, says the critics fail to understand the nature of the beast. The council, he says, is not aiming for a unified view representing all governors.
"Governing bodies have varying views. We want to be able to say that a large proportion of our members are concerned about this issue, while others are concerned about something else. That is immensely more valuable than trying to thrash out a single policy which represents all our members."
The view is shared by Pat Petch, one of the NGC's two vice-chairmen and one of two contenders for the place to be vacated by Simon Goodenough at the annual meeting. (He is standing down because of the amount of work involved and to spend more time on his publishing business.) "There are debates in which people have different views and it's important they are reflected, not just the majority," she says. "I come down quite strongly on the side of saying the NGC should not have policies as such."
Issues where members have different views include, for example, religious education and acts of collective worship. Sex education, another area in which governors have responsibilities, also inevitably gives rise to different points of view. Accountability of schools and inspection systems, and the formula by which schools are funded - the subject at tomorrow's meeting of a talk by finance expert Rita Hale - are also open to differing views. The topical issue of excluding pupils from school is also due to be discussed.
On other issues, however, there is no contention. These include the Government's recent move to abolish regulations on minimum space requirements in schools and funding for schools. The NGC has taken its place alongside parents' organisations and teachers' unions in protesting over dwindling resources and pressing for education to be given higher priority.
A series of disputes between governing bodies and head teachers has also been prominent among the council's concerns, and it is investigating whether guidelines could be produced to define their respective relationship more clearly. The difficulty in persuading people to become governors, a serious problem given the understandable apprehension many now feel at taking on such heavy responsibilities, is another major issue.
The NGC provides a helpline for its members and an occasional newsletter, but it not attempting to compete with the NAGM in offering practical support.
Jack Morrish, the NGC's other vice-chairman and contender for the chairmanship, is happy with progress so far: "It's important that we should be seen as the major national voice for governors. That's what we set out to achieve and it is already clear that we have succeeded in large measures. We are recognised by the DFEE [Department for Education and Employment] and other agencies as the major representative national voice for governing bodies. "
The council's growing influence inevitably brings into question the position of other groups catering for the needs of school governors. Relations with NAGM appear friendly at local level, but cool nationally. Things are rather better with Action for Governors Information and Training, set up 10 years ago and, as its name suggests, concerned mainly with providing practical support. It counts universities, voluntary associations and local education authorities among its members.
The possibility of a merger has been ruled out for the time being, but the two bodies are working closely together. David Smith, AGIT's chairman, is clear about the benefits of a merger. "Governors will be best served when there is one organisation to represent their interests."