Why you should de­velop a gov­ern­ing pas­sion

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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