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The End Of An ERG

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Stalwart governor, Phil Anthropy, sat in his office at home and surveyed the street outside the window where an elderly lady shuffled along, pulling an overladen shopping trolley.

Meanwhile children played happily, just as they had done for many years, but supplemented these days by a regular output of expletives and other words, which Phil felt were probably equally profane but was blissfully uncertain, knowing that he was simply out of touch.

Earlier that month Phil has resigned from his position as a school governor. Not just any other governor but in fact the Chair of Governors. He had held that role for a number of years, a tenure which he likened to a rollercoaster ride. He had thoroughly enjoyed immersing himself in the life of the school and only hoped others would see the impact he had made and the legacy he left in terms of a professional, functioning and highly able governing board. In addition to being the leader of the board, Phil had also enjoyed the privilege of being designated as a National Leader of Governance. He had never sought such a position but when he was persuaded several years ago to apply it was from a genuine desire to offer support to others, based on his longevity in office and the experience he had consequently accumulated. In the intervening years he had been a source of support for a number of troubled or inexperienced Chairs. He had worked with the local authority and Diocese offering support and advice around governance. He had supported boards with temporary issues that threatened their smooth running. And he had conducted a number of external reviews of governance where this had been recommended at inspection or where the boards themselves, or school support services, had identified such an exercise as being desirable. He was proud of the work he had done as an NLG. Yes, he had received an income for some of the time-consuming and sensitive reviews he had navigated but in fairness these had been a significant commitment. However,, he had offered far more of his time and wisdom completely free, from a sense of duty and altruism. He wanted to be known primarily as somebody a Chair, or governor in need, could phone, have a cup of tea with (even a virtual brew!) and feel reassured and more confident as a result of that chat. Nobody had ever told him as much, but Phil felt a quiet satisfaction that he had made a positive, if sometimes invisible difference.

Of course when announcing his planned resignation at Easter, Phil knew he would automatically lose his designation as a NLG given the conditions in place. He had quietly seethed at this for several weeks. Indeed Phil had seethed regularly around his NLG role since being inducted five years previously. He could not understand how such a vital cog in the machine called school improvement was so haphazard. How there was no central co-ordination of the work that needed carrying out. That schools and governors had very little or no steer as to what NLGs could offer, who they were and where they were. It was in essence a bun fight. If you developed a reputation as an NLG worthy of the title you would tend to pick up work regularly by word of mouth. However, getting a foot in the door was very difficult and he reflected how it had taken him over a year to even speak to a governor at another school despite his shameless self-promotion in the intervening period. He concluded that this was reflective of the low esteem in which governance was held within the educational establishment and government. He quietly swore but resisted the temptation to use one of the new words he had recently learned from the local street urchins.

So it was with no little surprise that one Spring morning whilst sipping filtered coffee to the beautiful Baroque accompaniment of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto, Phil unearthed an interesting development on social media. It appeared the Department for Education (Phil immediately visualised a dunce’s cap) was seeking to reform the NLG system and had nominated the National Governance Association (NGA) as the body to oversee the changes. He shrugged. At least it wasn’t under central control and the NGA was clearly appreciative of the importance of governance and the pivotal role that supporting Chairs and boards occupied. As the days and weeks passed Phil read more about the changes with increasing interest. This was most certainly not NLG 2.0. This was a complete revamp and constituted a change of direction. Firstly all existing NLGs were to lose their designation and would have to reapply. He reflected this was an appalling way to treat committed and professional people who had made such important contributions in the world of school governance. He further ruminated this was probably necessary because the previous system was so disorganised, nobody could actually quantify the work that NLGs had undertaken nor its impact. He seethed. It was also clear that the role specification was being changed. There was no place under the new system for mentoring and coaching new Chairs or those with local difficulties. No opportunity to pick up the phone for that reassuring chat or providing that ample shoulder on which any colleague could confidentially cry. No. The role of the NLG going forward was to simply conduct external review of governance, paid for by the Department of Dunces’ Caps, either at the behest of an increasingly politicised OFSTED, or perhaps local authorities or Dioceses.

Now Phil had long since viewed the Department of Dunces’ Caps with suspicion and derision. Led by a fireplace salesman, but in reality policy driven by an accountant who wanted to return education to 1968, he was appalled by their deliberate and systemic underfunding of state education for a decade. He knew from personal experience of the awful discussions in governing board meetings about which members of staff were to be made redundant. He had listened to headteachers sobbing from exhaustion having spent three full days and nights on safeguarding matters due to the absence of external support services whilst spending absolutely no time on teaching and learning and leadership. He couldn’t help thinking as maintained schools were starved of critical funding, how a small number of entitled and in some cases titled academy trust chief executives were raking in nearly half a million a year from the same public purse. He wondered why education ministers were singularly incapable of visiting any school outside the M25 and that wasn’t an academy.

Academies. Phil was relatively ambivalent. He knew of several excellent multi academy trusts and indeed standalone academies from early conversions, that shared best practice, always put their children first and treated them and the staff with respect. However he also knew of many maintained schools and colleges with the same culture and values that enjoyed similar excellent outcomes for children. He had long ago concluded that the type of school was largely irrelevant. What mattered was the name over the headteacher’s door, their leadership and how they inspired and nurtured their staff in a caring and supportive environment overseen by an effective and effiicent board.

It was at this point Phil Anthropy, contemptuous of the Department of Dunces’ Caps and peddler of conspiracy theories, suddenly realised what was happening here. The NLGs would go into the school, conduct an external review, find several things lacking and instantly recommend the school joined a multi-academy trust as the solution. A panacea. The answer to everything. He quietly swore (something akin to hollyhocks). He considered how the NGA, a body that had steadfastly in recent years refused to prefer one model of education over another, appeared to have had a Damascene conversion to full academisation and pondered whether thirty pieces of silver might still be the going rate. In fairness to Phil he did reflect on his own position. He did challenge his own stance. But he quickly remembered the clear policy position of the Department of Dunces’ Caps over universal academisation. He instantly recalled the ongoing “review” of teacher training that would doubtless lean heavily on the views of sycophants and stooges just as the earlier Sewell report’s denial of institutionalised racism. He brought to mind the Schools’ Minister increasingly telling teachers how to teach and what to teach and his appointment of a former nightclub bouncer as his behaviour guru. No this was part of a pattern. Another way for a right wing government to control education in this country to an unprecedented level. He ruminated that an incompetent education department was bad enough but that an incompetent department driven by a prescriptive and regressive ideology was positively dangerous for the sector to which he had devoted so much time and commitment.

And then a positively lovely thing happened. Thanks to the wonders of social media and thanks to the universal outrage felt by many “former” NLGs, conversations started from Northumberland to Norfolk, from Cumbria to Cornwall. These were people some of whom were, and are, government supporters. Some who were, and are, fierce proponents of the academy system. All drawn from different areas, from different backgrounds and different educational experiences. However, they were all united by one, much more powerful, thing. The greater good. The commitment to service before self. All united in bemoaning the sudden gaping chasm for that altruisitic commitment to offering our time and experience, free of charge, to those in need across our governing boards. People who had devoted thousands of hours mentoring and coaching Chairs and other governors, and who now saw how undervalued and unrecognised that vital work was. And it was from this very simple but powerful unifying factor that IgovS was born. A truly national group containing members with huge experience, expertise and wisdom. Already the group has helped colleagues in need. Already governors seeking advice have tapped into the collective expertise . Already group members have generously given of their time, at no cost, to help solve an urgent problem. Already there is greater co-ordination and better deployment of resources than was ever the case under the old NLG system. Out of adversity a quite amazing thing has developed.

So as Phil liberally spread sweet pickle on his corned beef baguette a smile spread across his haggard countenance. He had grudgingly accepted that with his retirement as Chair and hence the termination of his NLG status, his ability to help others would have ended. Suddenly, courtesy of the rapid emergence of IGovS, he now felt a renewed sense of purpose. A new lease of life where all of that priceless experience and expertise can be put to impactful use once again. How criminal the custodians of our education sector were so easily prepared to dispense with that collective reservoir of knowledge in its vain pursuit of their regressive ideology. Phil seethed one more time about the Department of Dunces’ Caps. But now he knew that there was finally an independent body, of which he was part, that was not beholden to politicians or vested interests, that is doing tangible good already in strengthening governance and upskilling Chair and other colleagues. Phil Anthropy lives on.


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