Warmed by the cosy north

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Lindy Hardcastle on the National Governors' Council's Durham spring conference

Durham was the venue of the National Governors' Council spring conference this year as part of its commitment to take the council to its members all over the country.

More than 100 delegates were rewarded with a day in the company of NGC members, education minister David Miliband, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and Kerry George of the National Association of Head Teachers, all talking about the "new relationship with schools".

Why, asked the minister, do we need one? Moving north meant that we had him in person rather than over a dodgy video link as we did last year, so the relationship was already cosier.

His reply, quoting Mr Dunford, was that the old relationship was based on understanding and trust. "You didn't understand us and we didn't trust you." The very positive dialogue developing between ministers, governors and heads was rapidly improving this situation. The minister emphasised governors' role in school improvement. As a former governor he was aware of how useful they could be in things such as "sorting out the staff toilets".

Perhaps not the world's best recruitment strategy, though useful if you are targeting plumbers.

In the light of the threat from NAHT to boycott workforce remodelling, governors expressed concern about schools' ability to fund the 10 per cent non-contact time from 2005, especially in primary schools.

The minister said it was premature to say that the budget for the next two years would be inadequate, but of course, he couldn't go to the Chancellor and ask for more money for education "any more than the defence secretary can".

Again, possibly not the best example to choose. Imagine Mr Hoon, with a war and an occupation to run, being told, as governors were last year: "The money is in your budget. You just have to use it creatively."

The NAHT had also passed a resolution calling for governors' meetings to be held during the school day. Governors felt this would make life difficult for those with jobs, and the sympathetic minister agreed that daytime meetings had caused him to give up his own school governance role. As usual there was universal agreement that governors should have paid time off work to fulfil their important public duties, but no suggestion as to how this should be achieved.

Governors also raised the issue of proposed Office for Standards in Education inspections at 48 hours' notice, querying how parents and governors could be consulted in such a timescale. The minister agreed that there was a problem, but said that the advantages of short-notice inspections were so great that a way must be found.

The perceived advantage is that the frantic two-month preparation period will be eliminated and instead we are to be in a state of perpetual readiness, our S4s (those handy self-evaluation forms) permanently up to date. Why do I find myself mentally replaying the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch?

Kerry George and Mr Dunford then took up the theme of the New Relationship, explaining the role of the proposed new breed of educational gurus, variously described as school accountability advisers and school improvement partners. The idea of a standardised data set which would be recognised by all was welcomed but governors struggled with the idea of the of the new super-advisers.

Would they be inspectors, performance management advisers, authority link officers and ex-heads wearing yet another hat? Did we need this new layer of advice? What would it replace? Who would be employing them and how would we be assured of their quality and effectiveness?

In the governors' open forum session, chief inspector David Bell's suggestion that the requirement for a daily act of collective worship should be relaxed was discussed.

When I visited Durham Cathedral on Saturday morning the daily service was just coming to an end: the score was clerics 6, worshippers 1. It is probably time that schools stopped trying to swim against the tide of our increasingly secular society.

Lindy Hardcastle is a chair of governors at Lady Jane Grey school in Leicester

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