Are You Cut Out To Be A School Governor?

16th September 2016

With over 30,000 vacancies for school governors nationally, this means that roughly one in ten schools are looking out for enthusiastic, well-qualified professionals to help run their schools. Lisa Botwright finds out more about what the role (really) involves…

Well-qualified? perhaps. Enthusiastic? That’s a bit more tricky.

In our time-poor, hectic lives where most of us are juggling long working hours and all the demands of family life, it’s no wonder that the thought of taking on even more responsibility fills most of us with trepidation. When one poor (ex) governor took to the national press to bemoan his experience, it seemed to reflect most people’s misgivings. “Being a governor can take over your life,” Peter Stanford railed “whether you intend it or not”.

It was interesting, therefore, to chat with Adam Balzano, a longstanding governor of a small primary school in North London, and be told the opposite. In fact, I was quite swept away by his enthusiasm as he explained that being a governor has “been a remarkably fulfilling experience.”

Sam Russell, Chair of Governors for Little Reddings School in Bushey, also claims that his last decade as a school governor has been an incredibly positive experience; although he does agree with Peter Stanford that there is potential for the role to eat into your time. “Just be careful not to take on too much,” he warns good naturedly.

After speaking to several school governors, the common theme seems to be that the advantages (investment in your community, gaining new skills) do outweigh the disadvantages (pressure to invest longer hours than originally expected).

Adam, for example, is keen to point out the balance of extrinsic and intrinsic benefits of being a governor: extrinsic in terms of the strategic management skills he can now add to his CV, and intrinsic in the pleasure to be gained from really making a difference. “I serve in a relatively socially deprived area,” he tells me, “which means our school faces several challenges. Despite this, we have made massive strides to improve educational performance over the past couple of years.”

When Adam talks about ‘we’ – he is referring to his fellow members of the governing body, along with the Head Teacher and the rest of the senior leadership team employed by the school. It’s a highly collaborative process, so it’s an essential requirement to be able to work as a team. Being a school governor is a strategic, rather than operational role: it’s mostly about setting clear aims and objectives for the school, and then monitoring to ensure that everyone involved is working towards those aims. This might involve termly full and sub-committee meetings, and time spent reading all the relevant paperwork.

Sam believes that one of his biggest achievements as a governor has been to recruit “a fantastic Head” at Little Reddings. This makes sense, as the right Head will make all the difference to a school. While it’s ultimately down to the vision of the Head Teacher to move the school forward, Sam explains that it’s up to the governors to recruit the right person in the first place. The crucial part is navigating the slightly trickier balance between lending support and building a successful relationship, but also in being a ‘critical friend’ where appropriate.

When he was originally recruited as a governor, Sam says that his management skills were seen as an asset (he’s a Stakeholder Manager for a rail company based in London); the flipside is that he’s gained so many more skills since then, in chairing meetings, and in the intricacies of recruitment and HR processes.

Adam also feels that being a governor has been essential for personal success, and even insists that it directly contributed to him gaining an important promotion at work. “The position has led me to develop skills in areas I wouldn’t have had access to at work or that would have required attending expensive training courses.”

Although being a governor may entail some commitments during the day, which might mean needing to take time off if you work full time, you may find that your employer is surprisingly supportive. Amy Parsons become a governor at the suggestion of her company and brought her finance skills to the F&GP Committee (Finance and General Purposes) of her chosen school. “I feel I am adding real value challenging the numbers – striking the right balance between prudence and spending the money available to better the school.”

David Rowsell is Education & Financial Lead at Lloyds Banking Group and believes colleagues have a huge amount to offer and a huge amount to learn by taking on the role of a school governor. "We encourage our staff to check for volunteering opportunities in their area and log their time accordingly.” Lloyds are just one company currently collaborating with School Governors One-Stop Shop (SGOSS), an independent charity based in central London, dedicated to ‘making a positive impact on the education of thousands of children’ and passionately committed to finding the right candidates for the right schools. SGOSS believe that by encouraging employee volunteering, companies can help to provide schools with access to the vital skills and external perspectives needed to help drive improvement and pupil attainment.

If you’re considering becoming a school governor yourself, SGOSS provides (as its name implies) a one-stop shop for everything relevant – from identifying suitable vacancies, to mentoring and supplying information on training.

Anyone over eighteen can apply to be a governor. You can do so through a charity such as SGOSS; you can contact your preferred school directly to check for vacancies, or you can liaise with your local authority, who will put you in touch with the right people. For Herts residents, this is the Governance Team within Herts for Learning, who provide services to schools, and who are, in my experience, both helpful and friendly.

If you’re a parent though, and interested in becoming a governor at your child’s school, bear in mind that the approach can be slightly different. At present, maintained schools have a set number of parent governors who are elected by other parents in four-yearly cycles, meaning that a little bit of campaigning will be necessary to raise your profile amongst other families.

Parent governors are a hot topic right now, though, as is the academisation of schools, and the two are inextricably linked. The government’s White Paper for schools, published in March, stated, ‘We will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards.’ The implication that parents couldn’t have ‘the right skills’ was controversial, to say the least.

The situation is changing even as we go to press, with Education Secretary Justine Greening suggesting that proposals to abolish parent governors are self-defeating, recognising their “vital role”, and acknowledging that schools turn around “when parents become more engaged and more invested in the school’s success”.

Whatever your view on academisation (and it’s obviously a matter of huge debate on governors’ agendas) it’s clear that the government does believe that a committed and talented governing board is crucial. As former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan said – far less controversially – “the best run schools are those with the highly skilled governors who can both hold schools to account and direct their future path.”

Increased exposure of the importance of school governance is welcome. After all, as Sam Russell observed, the role is simply “not high profile enough for the good that it does.”

For more information contact Herts for Learning
on 01438 843082 or visit www.sgoss.org.uk

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