Why you should develop a governing passion
Serving as a school governor is one of those jobs that rarely gets you noticed until it goes wrong – as it did recently in the Birmingham schools crisis. Or, more typically, if an Ofsted rating disappoints, or a new head fails to impress. But while they are unpaid and under-recognised, governors — who, with the head teacher, plan a school’s goals and check if they are being met – are vital to the success of our schools. Happily, it is a vocation that seems to be thriving.
Last year SGOSS, the agency that sources aspirant governors for state schools, signed up 4,400 recruits – a record. And boards of governors are increasingly shunning the Dibley-esque image of stuffy closed shops peopled by whiskery retired doctors, lawyers and teachers who all know each other from church. New regulations demand that skills count more than contacts; governors serving more remote areas sometimes liaise over Skype; and a growing number of twenty- and thirtysomethings are starting to volunteer.
Oxford graduate and management consultant Lizzie Davidson, 25, is a case in point. With a father and boyfriend who are also governors, and having worked for a social policy think tank and a children’s hospital, she decided to apply. She is now a governor of a nursery school and children’s centre in Peckham, south London.
“My father found it hugely rewarding, and having a strong interest in young people I am already finding the same,” says Lizzie. “Yes, at my age, I have far less management experience than many. But I was more recently in a school myself, and may be better placed to advise on things like social media policy, for example.”
A board of governors is typically 12 strong, and will include representatives from current parents, staff, the local authority and any school foundation or sponsoring body. But the remainder are drawn from the local community, people who can offer expertise in an area such as law, planning or finance.
“But you don’t have to be an expert at everything,” says SGOSS’s Janet Scott. “And we’re not asking accountants to do the books – just to support and develop the school with their business heads.”
She welcomes the rise of younger applicants. “We know of people who have been governors at 21 or right up into their 80s. It’s very powerful on a CV and great for your own development – and it can be very enjoyable.”
The average age of an SGOSS recruit is 38, though that may belie the actuality. At this age many professionals are at their most frenetic, juggling work and small children. The last thing many of them feel like is yet another hefty “school project”, and governing is no small commitment.
With a term of office lasting three to four years, and governors required to man sub-committees on finance, admissions, staffing and so on, the job often involves six or more meetings a year – with a smattering of school concerts, plays and the like to attend as well.
Solicitor and mother of three Phillippa O’Neill, 41, is one who has found time. She became a governor for the Loughborough Endowed Schools, incorporating one prep and a girls’ and boys’ upper school, four years ago, but concedes: “I am the youngest on our board by about 15 years. As a former pupil and now a parent at these schools, it seemed natural thing for me to give something back – but it’s been very interesting for me to learn how a school business works. Recruiting a new head was particularly exciting.”
But how does she find time for her four or five meetings a term? “My firm, Spearing Waite, is very supportive. And if, for example, I’ve a meeting at school at 11am, the school head finds somewhere I can work from remotely instead of wasting time travelling.”
Dr Andrew Gailey is Vice-Provost of Eton College and has been a governor at a range of schools, including a local Academy in Slough. He believes that a good board of governors need not always closely mirror the school’s pupil base: “The more representative it attempts to be, the less effective it can become. Governors need to be independently minded and not see themselves primarily as delegates. Parents who volunteer from the viewpoint of their child can be a hazard. But parents of former pupils can be very good, and often can flag up problems that school authorities had been happy to let drift.”
Religion often comes into governor selections, especially if the school is affiliated to a particular faith or denomination. But it should never be an overriding consideration, believes Dr Gailey. “While the governing bodies of these schools naturally reflect the denomination, the best ‘faith’ schools encourage governors from other faiths.”
As a protestant governor at a leading catholic school, he chairs the education committee. “Religious schools have much to offer provided it is done in a way that is open and inclusive. Other-faith governors can help achieve this.”
In the private sector, recruitment tends to be more of a closed shop, with existing governors sourcing replacements with the required skills from contacts and friends. In the older public schools, positions may be more tightly ring-fenced still, in the remit of outside institutions such as the ancient universities or The Royal Society.
And there is no doubt that it is harder to recruit in rural areas. “Central London has the crème de la crème of volunteers, and many very good, big companies who happily release employees,” says Scott. “We could probably fill vacancies two or three times over in Kensington and Chelsea. By Enfield and Hillingdon it’s not so easy, and coastal and rural areas are a challenge – places where there is less big business, and sometimes more disadvantaged children, lower parental engagement and so on.” She points out that conducting some meetings by Skype or teleconference, as some schools do, can allow them to cast the net wider.
Travel expenses may be available, but barely anyone claims them, aware of their school’s budgetary challenges. One example among many is a dedicated governor, formerly in finance but now a full-time mother, who relishes the stimulation of being a governor to a local C of E state primary but finds she has spent thousands of pounds in childcare to do it.
For swots who keep on top of their homework, there are masses of online booklets and modules from outfits like the National Governors Association or Governor E-learning. Training, and governor networking days are also run by local authorities or the diocese in the case of church schools, though take-up of these was variable among the governors I spoke to. Many, presumably, are confident in their professional skills and happy to learn “on the job”.
Where they are unanimous, however, is in the satisfaction they derive. “It’s a wonderful means to make a contribution to your local community and to do so with others,” says Dr Gailey. “Schools are places of energy, change and hope for the future, and however insignificant your contribution, it could prove life-changing for a young person. Few high-powered jobs can give you that.”
sgoss.org.uk — Information about becoming a governor at a state school inspiringgovernors.org nga.org.uk — National Governors Association
elc-gel.org — Governor e-learning
Panellist: Philippa O’Neill at Loughborough Grammar School, where she is a governor