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Time to ask the big questions

A lot of attention has been paid recently to calls at the teachers' union conferences for strikes or other forms of industrial action. Questions have been raised about the state of the alliance between teachers, parents and governors. Where do we go from here?

It has already been said that parents and governors do not want children to be sent home nor excluded from class; that the fact that governors cannot condone strike action is unlikely to win education more support from a Government equally wary; that class size is an important issue and requires more debate; and that any strike action will undermine the confidence of all those whose help is needed to further the cause of education with government.

Rainbow alliances must be treated with caution. They are a bit like dream tickets. People wake up beside what was once a good idea and yearn for their own bed. The most successful guerrilla campaigns are won by diversity of action, each party working with its own resources and in its own style on its own ground; by recognising the different needs and aspirations of all parties; by good communications; by identifying consensus wherever possible; and by agreement on the ultimate aim.

It is not simply a strategy for governors, parents and teachers. It involves business, the local authorities and others. The outbreak of diplomacy that has occurred since the accession of the present Secretary of State and the emergence of the National Governors' Council last autumn has been encouraging, effective and, though in its early stages, robust.

This diplomatic endeavour requires considerable stamina and an open-minded approach by all parties. It requires the vulgarity of a foot-in-the-door salesperson as well as genuine enthusiasm; it is underpinned by the same depth of passion and concern that has been so clearly expressed by parents, teachers and governors in recent months.

Funding has been at the heart of those protests, the methods of funding and the funds themselves. There is a consensus, even within government that the method is unsatisfactory and the amount inadequate. What is needed is the political will to do something about these things and to identify where the extra money might come from. Although there are quite a few suggestions on the latter count, these are all means and not ends.

The proper question is, does our education system adequately serve our society? What do we want from education? What do we imagine education to be about? We should be honest if we can't afford everything, but we cannot afford to sell our future short. That means we must look beyond the fashionable selections of priorities and create a coherent plan that draws together expectations and resources.

Maybe governors are not supposed to ask the big questions. But is they who face in microcosm all the issues that are raised nationally, In which case, governors are the best people to ask those questions.

We need a vision for education, worked out with the help of all parties and possibly accompanied by a charter to which all parties agree, which sets out a long-term social framework for education, and which embraces our reciprocal responsibilities. We should be specific about our needs wherever possible and our charter should be a vibrant document to which we shall constantly add items and work to achieve consensus.

The Secretary of State has received and should continue to receive considerable support for her arguments on our behalf in Cabinet but she has yet to deliver on her promises and those of her Government. She will be watched closely by governors starting to think about next year's recruitment.

We should meanwhile provide her with accurate evidence of the situation in our schools. The National Governors' Council survey during the summer term will be a major tool in doing this and will depend on the co-operation of all schools. The results will add to the positive pressure on the Government to increase funding for schools. At the same time we should all be using every art of persuasion and diplomacy to convince this and future governments that it is in their own and the country's interests not to play political shuttlecock but to work for consensus and long-term stability in education.

Simon Goodenough is chairman of the NationalGovernors' Council.

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