High profile school governor steps down after almost 20 years

AFTER almost two decades, four headteachers and a handful of steadily improving Ofsted reports, Fiona Millar has finally stepped down as a governor at Gospel Oak Primary.

She believes, however, that lessons she and other devoted parents learned from helping to transform the primary, should be passed on to future generations.

“The story of my time at Gospel Oak has lessons for many of us as we wrestle with how to get a high quality school system that works for all our children,” Ms Millar, now 52, said.

The timing is especially pertinent, she reminds us, as Michael Gove is encouraging parents to set up their own Free Schools, to drive up standards. These will be state-funded but outside of local government control, at liberty to set their own curriculum and admissions criteria.

“Gospel Oak really influenced my thinking on education and the power of getting all parents to stick by their local school,” Ms Millar said.

“It was very successful and popular in the 60s and 70s. But then the school went through a very bad period; it almost failed an Ofsted and there was a crisis of confidence.

“I’m very proud of the parents who helped to make it the school it is today; which is why I feel the answer politically is not to set up alternative Free Schools but to stick by local schools and make them as good as they can be.”

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Ms Millar’s zeal for defending the status quo has been consistent during her 18 years as governor. She and her partner Alastair Campbell, a former communications adviser to Tony Blair, were young, very high achieving parents.

They chose to send their three children to Gospel Oak because it was the nearest school to their home. (The boys then went on to William Ellis, while their daughter attends La Swap).

Ms Millar, a former Camden School for Girls pupil, opted to become a governor to ensure that, as a busy national newspaper journalist, she was still involved in her children’s day-to-day school lives.

But she soon realised that the school was at the tail end of its golden years and standards at an all-time low. An Ofsted report in 1994 revealed a dysfunctional institution where some teachers were floundering. The head teacher left and parents began taking children out of the school.

In 2000 she became chairwoman of governors and by a stroke of luck and good timing persuaded the current head teacher Alan Seymour to apply for the job.

It was from this point on that Gospel Oak rose from the ashes.

“The key thing for a governing body is to find a good head teacher who has high expectations and is able to consistently manage and sustain all elements of a school. Mr Seymour came in with a fresh pair of eyes and very high standards,” Ms Millar said.

Now she is turning her attention to finding a suitable permanent head for William Ellis where she is also chairwoman of governors. The boys’ school has had two permanent and one interim head since 2008.

“We need to find the right head which is partly why I’m stepping down. I want to take my experience from Gospel Oak to William Ellis. It’s simply not true to say that the last two heads didn’t contribute a great deal, because they did.” she said.

Some may question her motives for defending state schools as purely political but she is quick to scotch rumours that she wants to be the next Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. “That’s absolute rubbish. I’ve got no plans to stand for Hampstead and Kilburn,” she said.

Has Melissa Benn (Tony Benn’s daughter) been acting as her unpaid agent? “No. That’s absolute rubbish too,” she exclaimed. “Personally I feel that I can have more influence outside of Parliament.”

“There are very few people in the media who are prepared to stand up and say positive things about state education,” Ms Millar said.

“I want to campaign for the 93 per cent of parents who do send their children to state schools. Somebody needs to fight back for the state sector. I hope parents will take a look at their local schools and be pleasantly surprised. Just look at Gospel Oak.”

She recently launched a website designed for parents who want to support their local schools. To join it visit: www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk.