With local authorities seeking new powers to intervene in schools and Whitehall officials urging the Government to expect less of lay volunteers, do governors face being sidelined? Lindy Hardcastle talks to Pat Petch and finds her determined that the National Governors' Council should be heard
When the National Governors' Council was set up three years ago, one of its main objectives was to establish the right of governors to be consulted on education policy and legislation at every level.
As Pat Petch, recently re-elected chairman of the NGC, explained "We don't always want to be seen to be opposing DFEE (Department for Education and Employment) policy, but that is all we can do if we are not involved in decision-making. If we can influence the planning and discuss what considerations and constraints apply, then we can accommodate change, even if it is not exactly what we would have wished."
The NGC has built a membership of 55 local associations all over the country. It has been consulted and included in working parties on a great variety of issues from school security to the Labour Government's literacy and numeracy task forces and the new qualification for headteachers. Pat Petch is optimistic about maintaining and extending the high profile role of governors with the new administration.
"The indications so far are very good. Both in his address to the NGC conference in November and in a letter to the May AGM, David Blunkett spoke warmly of the dedication, energy and commitment of governors, and promised an end to the damaging divisions which have bedevilled education for too long. He offered governors partnership and consultation, and the NGC is more than ready to respond to this."
So what will be the big issues for governors over the next few months? On what will the NGC be particularly anxious to make its voice heard? The Government's plans to require all governing bodies to set performance targets for their schools was at the top of Pat Petch's list. "We must be fully involved. The responsibility for meeting targets will rest with governors and the whole area of raising standards, ensuring that schools are providing the best possible education for all our children, is at the heart of what governors should be doing."
But funding is still the most pressing concern of most governing bodies, many of whom have had difficult decisions to make in the past few years over staff redundancies. The NGC conference in May pressed the Government to review the wide-ranging discrepancies in funding in different parts of the country. These are seen as difficult to justify when staff are paid on a national scale and are delivering a common curriculum.
Pat Petch says: "The new Government made education its highest priority so we expect it to address the fundamental issue of funding the education service and schools. Full funding of this year's teachers' pay award will be seen by many governing bodies as a test of government commitment. We are not just interested in redistribution of money from one area of the country to another or from one area of LEA spending to another. Many schools are only able to maintain current depleted staffing levels at the expense of books and computers. Repair of school buildings and expansion of resources must be a priority."
The commitment to reduce class sizes at key stage 1 was welcome, particularly if adequately funded, but Pat sees practical difficulties. The definition of a class - a registration group or a teaching unit - and the inclusion or otherwise of support staff need to be discussed; and governors need still to be able to make decisions about staffing and spending that are right for their individual circumstances. Rises in standard admission numbers and parental appeals must be addressed if class sizes are to be reduced.
Labour's proposal to put more parents on governing bodies meets with qualified approval from Pat Petch. "We need to know whether this means additional governors for each school, or a corresponding reduction in other categories of governor, LEA appointees and co-options. Parents' views are very important, but we need non-parents too to provide the community perspective and take a more detached and long-term view on school development.
"Perhaps this is the time to review the make-up of governing bodies as a whole, not just tinker with one element; but the essential thing here, as with so many other issues, is that we have negotiated not imposed change."
But governors are not the only ones lobbying David Blunkett and his colleagues. Other interested parties have ideas of their own for modifying governors' powers. Local authority representatives are seeking greater involvement in selecting heads and new powers to intervene in schools they regard as underperforming or to compel governors to take action over incompetent teachers. Concern that governing bodies are not having sufficient impact on raising standards have been expressed privately by DFEE officials and publicly by the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead. Even the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth, called for more checks and balances on governors "sweeping powers" in an article in The TES last year (June 21).
When asked how she felt about reports suggesting local authorities should be able to reclaim schools' budget surpluses, Pat Petch replied, "Over my dead body". Most so-called surpluses were carefully planned for and committed, usually for spending in the remaining term of the academic year, which is different from the financial year.
"As for appointing heads, of course LEAs and diocesan authorities provide invaluable professional help, but we don't want a return to local politicians appointing heads - this proposal has more to do with control than standards. "
Pat Petch has no doubt that local management of schools has been a tremendous success, but it must continue to mean management in the fullest sense of the word, not just financial.
"Many of us approached LMS with trepidation, but the benefits to schools have been enormous. Schools are able to plan their own long-term development in the interests of the children, parents, staff and community, represented throughout the governing body. We want to move forward, not put the clock back."
David Blunkett's letter to the NGC conference concluded with the words "I look forward to working with you and hearing your views about how we can help governors do an even better job in future." With Pat Petch at the helm of the National Governors' Council, he is likely to be hearing governors' views loud and clear.