Challenges and opportunities in school governance blog

On National School Governors’ Awareness Day, Alex Hall-Chen, Principal Policy Advisor for Skills at the IoD, looks at the opportunities and challenges in school governance in 2023.

You can listen to our accompanying podcast on school governance here.

Back in 2018, the IoD published Back to School – common challenges facing school governors and company directors, which explored the ways that the role of a school governor overlaps with that of a non-executive director, including in:

  • Holding school leadership to account while respecting governance boundaries
  • Getting access to sufficient information
  • Constructively challenging the headteacher and the senior leadership team
  • Understanding and influencing the school’s culture and values
  • Demonstrating accountability
  • Managing conflicts of interest

The past few years have brought considerable challenges for schools; they are navigating an environment marked by labour shortages, inflation, and the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student performance and wellbeing.

The nature of governance has also changed as more schools have joined Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). Whereas schools under local authority control have a single governance board, MATs typically have a more complex governance structure with both boards for individual schools and for the trust as a whole, and in some cases also regional boards for clusters of schools within the trust.

As a result, the role of school governors has never been more important. Yet there is a national shortage of school governors – particularly acute outside of London and in areas of deprivation – with 2022 research from the National Governors Association finding that there are around 20,000 vacancies in England, with two thirds of boards reporting at least one vacancy.

Why consider becoming a school governor?

The business community has transferable skills that can be applied to school governance for everyone’s benefit; deepening cross-fertilisation between business and education to further strengthen the governance of schools across the country is essential to improving outcomes in schools.

By volunteering your time and expertise, you can help to ensure that children in your area receive the best possible education. In doing so, you will be making a real difference in the lives of children and young people in your community.

Being on a school board can also be a way of acquiring governance experience that can later be applied in a business context. Recruiters are increasingly waking up to the competences and insights that school governors can bring to the table. In fact, with corporate governance putting increasing emphasis on juggling the perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders, school board experience could prove an even greater head-start for a journey towards becoming a non-executive director, as it involves intensive engagement with parents, students, local residents and regulators.

Serving as a school governor therefore offers a unique opportunity to give back to your local community while also furthering your own personal and professional development.

What skills are schools looking for in governors?

There are no specific qualifications or requirements for the role; every governing board needs a balance and diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience. You don’t need to be a parent or to have a background in education.

Schools require a combination of hard and soft skills to ensure their boards operate effectively. All governing boards can benefit from expertise and experience in education, data analysis, budgeting, driving financial efficiency, and performance management of staff and other employment issues.

Getting involved

The time commitment involved in being a school governor varies, but boards typically meet three to six times a year, with a time commitment of around five to eight hours a month. While school boards traditionally conducted meetings in person, there has been a growth in opportunities for remote governance in recent years.

Becoming a school governor typically involves contacting your local authority, MAT, or the school directly to express your interest. You may be required to complete an application form and attend an interview or meet with the headteacher.

You can also register your interest to be a school governor with Governors for Schools, who match volunteers to schools with vacancies.

How can employers support their staff to become school governors?

Given the significant professional development benefits involved in becoming a school governor, as well as the positive impact on local communities, there is a strong case for employers to support their staff to take up school governor roles.

Staff already have a statutory right to unpaid time off to undertake school governance duties, but offering paid time off – whether specifically for school governance or as part of Corporate Social Responsibility days – is an impactful way to support employees to become governors. Sharing information and testimonials about school governance with staff can also help to raise awareness and interest in volunteering.

Employers can also partner with Governors for Schools to support employees to identify governance opportunities and access support once in the role.

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