School governors are one of the largest groups of volunteers in the United Kingdom. In January 2017, some 300,000 people were serving on school boards to support the education of the nation’s children.
The IoD has an affinity with school governors, who are subject to the same duties and responsibilities as a typical non-executive director. It is also interesting to note that becoming a company director or school governor requires no formal qualifications. Central to the IoD mission is training and empowering company directors on governance issues, so the IoD takes an interest in how those charged with the governance of schools perform.
In October 2018 the IoD published a new report:
Back to School: common challenges facing school governors and company directors
The report provides an accessible guide to the governance of schools and school trusts for business leaders. It examines central aspects of the schools governor role, such as managing conflicts of interest and holding school leadership to account, outlining how these translate to similar features in the field of corporate governance.
Company directors on school boards – A win-win opportunity
People with business experience have a good deal to offer school boards in terms of financial literacy and the ability to work through issues. In return, you gain the immense satisfaction of helping so many other people. The exercise of governance responsibility at a school is good preparation for a non-executive directorship – but don’t treat it lightly as a career stepping stone. Too many people depend on effective school boards.
Serving as a school governor would be an enlightening experience for a working executive director more used to being challenged by non-executive directors than acting as one.
Any start-up or SME director working by themselves should welcome the experience of sitting on a full board.
What do school governors do?
School governors sit on the governing board of a school. The Department for Education states that “the board is responsible in law for the school”, and sets down the responsibilities of the governing board as:
- Ensuring, for the school or federation, clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction.
- Holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the school or federation and its pupils, and for the performance management of the staff.
- Overseeing the financial performance of the school or federation, and ensuring that expenditure delivers value for money.
The National Governance Association (NGA) represents governors and trustees serving on the boards of maintained schools and academies in England. The NGA provides the following detail on the role of school governor:
Contribute to the strategic discussions at governing board meetings which determine:
- The vision and ethos of the school.
- Clear and ambitious strategic priorities and targets for the school.
- That all children, including those with special educational needs, have access to a broad and balanced curriculum.
- The school’s budget, including the expenditure of the pupil premium allocation.
- The school’s staffing structure and key staffing policies.
- The principles to be used by school leaders to set other school policies.
Hold executive leaders to account by monitoring the school’s performance; this includes:
- Agreeing the outcomes from the school’s self-evaluation and ensuring they are used to inform the priorities in the school development plan.
- Considering all relevant data and feedback provided on request by school leaders and external sources on all aspects of school performance.
- Asking challenging questions of school leaders.
- Ensuring senior leaders have arranged for the required audits to be carried out and receiving the results of those audits.
- Ensuring senior leaders have developed the required policies and procedures and the school is operating effectively according to those policies.
- Acting as a link governor on a specific issue, making relevant enquiries of the relevant staff, and reporting to the governing board on the progress on the relevant school priority.
- Listening to and reporting to the school’s stakeholders: pupils, parents, staff, and the wider community, including local employers.
Ensure staff have the resources and support they require to do their jobs well, including the necessary expertise on business management, external advice where necessary, effective appraisal and CPD (Continuing Professional Development), and suitable premises and that the way in which those resources are used has impact.
When required, serve on panels of governors to:
- Appoint the head teacher and other senior leaders.
- Appraise the head teacher.
- Set the head teacher’s pay and agree the pay recommendations for other staff.
- Hear the second stage of staff grievances and disciplinary matters.
- Hear appeals about pupil Exclusions.
That’s a considerable amount of responsibility for a volunteer role – and it shows how much governors can gain in experience whilst performing a service to the next generation.
Developments and issues
Anyone considering becoming a school governor will quickly discover that a number of issues are the subject of keen debate.
The creation of Ofsted has inevitably made school boards more conscious of year-by-year results. An Ofsted school inspection will include an assessment of the board’s performance, and Ofsted rarely pulls its punches when it concludes that a board has underperformed. In response, governors often argue that Ofsted does not always appreciate the issues a given school may face. An official Ofsted blog notes that meetings with governors can be "lively" affairs.
The 'professionalisation' debate
The case for selecting and paying school governors is that the modern school governor needs to be more capable and informed than the typical willing volunteer. It is also argued that the current system is not directing school governor talent to deprived areas, where it is most needed. Most school governors are still local residents, which can mean significant variations in the quality of school boards between deprived and wealthy areas.
Another argument for professionalisation is the emergence of school federations under the Academy policy. Leading these federations are chief executives – not head teachers. Although the boards of federated schools feature trustees rather than governors, the argument runs that volunteer governors are no longer an effective counterbalance to the growing number of professional executive leaders in the education sector.
Opponents argue that professional school governors would break the fundamental compact between schools and the communities they reside in. Part of this compact requires the school board to be representative of the community which relies on the school. This does not happen if governors are hired in from other areas. The independence of school governors might also be questioned if schools started paying them.
In 2014, the National Governance Association and the University of Bath conducted a survey of school governors in England. Ninety six percent of the respondents were white. Other research indicates that only eight percent of school governors are under 40, with thirty three percent aged over 60.
Induction and training
The Department for Education makes it clear that the induction and training of new governors is a matter for each school board. Critics of the current policy argue that many induction programmes are more concerned with familiarisation rather than establishing governance at the heart of school business. They also point out that the executive side (the head teacher and team) do not always receive training in how to be governed by their board. Ultimate responsibility for a school’s finances makes financial literacy a constant concern.
How to become a school a governor
One similarity between school governors and company directors is that there are no formal qualifications required. Applicants must be over 18 and willing to devote the necessary time. Note that a school governor does not have to have a child at the school, or be a parent at all.
The National Governance Association suggests the following routes:
- Find a vacancy using the Inspire Governance website
- Contact your local school and ask if they have governor vacancies
- Contact your local council
Academy Ambassadors recruits high-calibre business candidates with skills in areas such as finance, law, audit, risk and HR to strengthen the boards of multi-academy trusts. Find board opportunities in your area.
The National Governance Association is a first-call resource for prospective school governors.
The Department for Education and the National College for Teaching and Leadership have produced a comprehensive guide for school governors:
Governance handbook and competency framework
For a balanced examination of prevailing issues in school governance, download the RSA report: Who governs our schools (September 2017)
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