Education: Governors are in business: Schools are finding that newcomers from industry can bring expertise - and cash. Diana Hinds reports

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The Independent Online
When Ailiss Nind, personnel manager at a Sainsbury store in Nottingham, was asked by the company if she would like to become a school governor, she took on two local governorships simultaneously. She soon found, however, that being an effective governor involved far more than attending a few meetings a year, and was forced to drop one of the schools.

Five years later Mrs Nind fits in a visit to the Joseph Whitaker Secondary School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, about once a fortnight. Her main contribution, she says, in addition to chairing the finance sub-committee, has been helping pupils to prepare for job interviews and explaining what Sainsbury and other companies are looking for.

The Government, along with a growing band of industrialists, is convinced that if more people like Mrs Nind could be persuaded to become school governors, both pupils and industry would benefit. Employers often complain about the poor calibre of some young applicants, and some firms say they have stopped recruiting school-leavers because they lack the necessary communication skills, attitudes or personal habits.

Eighteen months ago John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, launched a campaign appealing for more school governors from industry and business. But the campaign has been criticised because some companies have found it difficult to match governors to schools without the support of a central agency or contact point.

Industry in Education - a new trust set up by 25 companies, including the British Railways Board, Burton, Guinness, Midland Bank and Norwich Union - aims to remedy the situation and cement an alliance between schools and industry. The trust hopes to encourage more governors from industry and to persuade industry to make more financial investment in schools.

'We want to be the marriage broker: we'll approach local companies to get them interested and then we'll look for the schools to match them up with,' says Richard Painter, chief executive of Industry in Education.

'Industrialists have significant experience to offer, particularly in managing large budgets and in personnel. There has been reluctance on the part of some headteachers and governors to accept people from outside, but that is changing. Some heads now see the need to work with industry, for the expertise it brings and the financial advantages.'

Not all governors can put in the amount of time Mrs Nind does, and many find starting out as a governor from industry more difficult than they had expected.

Mary Griffiths, staff development manager at the food and drink retailer Grand Metropolitan, is in her second year as a governor at her daughters' secondary school in Hastings, Sussex. 'At my first meeting I went in too strongly, assuming everyone had a similar background. At Grand Met we are encouraged to come up with ideas and be assertive, but if you went into every governors' meeting like that you could alienate people. There are people there who aren't used to meetings and it would be easy to swamp them. You have to work at a different pace.'

Ms Griffiths received governor training from the local education authority and from Grand Metropolitan, which gives governors six days' paid leave a year to do the job and contributes up to pounds 1,500 towards individual school projects. She has helped the school by giving it extra information on training, and by acting as a consultant on personnel matters. 'My main role has been a support role. People like to be able to ask: 'Is what we're doing OK?' '

Richard Mann, chairman of Grand Metropolitan Trust, became a governor of a secondary school in Newhaven, Sussex, last November. 'You have to work at it to be accepted,' he says. 'You need to get to know the headteacher, staff and governors before you can start contributing. I have held back on some occasions on subjects that could be contentious, such as management, because you can't just walk in and tell people what to do: they have to be willing to accept it.'

Mr Mann found the 'collegiate' management style of schools, based on heads of department, very different from methods used in business. 'The collegiate system may well work in some circumstances, but I have yet to be convinced. I think general management skills need to be looked at very carefully.'

After a year as a governor at Greenfields Junior School, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, Steve Airton, a systems development manager for K P Foods (part of United Biscuits), felt he had not achieved anything. But in his second year he was involved in monitoring the finances of an after-school play scheme which is now running at a profit.

He also persuaded the school to implement a proper accounting system for its voluntary funding. 'Initially, there was a bit of reluctance, and I had to recognise I wasn't in my usual work environment and go more slowly. But now the school sees the value of the accounts because more information is readily available, and that's been very satisfying for me.'

United Biscuits is one of many companies increasingly keen to encourage links with schools, and it provides bursaries of pounds 250 a year for schools where its employees are governors. Mr Airton said one reason he decided to be a governor was that he had one child at the school and another due to start.

'One thing being a governor has shown me is that I can be confident my children are going to a good school.'

(Photograph omitted)