What is a school governor? Why do I do it? What can I do better?
16 March 2023 | Applicable law: England and Wales | 10 minute read
At the end of December 2022, I completed my five year term as chair of governors of a leading London independent day school. I had also been the designated safeguarding governor and most recently the new RSE governor. At this point of stepping away from these responsibilities, after some tumultuous years, including Covid lockdowns and responses to sector crises, I paused to reflect on what I had been involved with, which led me to write this article - wondering what the role of governor in an independent school is; why I and my colleagues do it; and how it could be done better?
So, what is the governor’s role? In this context, it is useful to read the Joint Understanding of Good Governance which the Independent Schools Council and its constituent Associations (AGBIS, COBIS, GSA, HMC, IAPS, ISA, ISBA and the Society of Heads) have drawn up, in recognition of the importance of effective governance based on best practice within its member schools; it is available here: Microsoft Word - A JOINT UNDERSTANDING OF GOOD GOVERNANCE FINAL (gsa.uk.com).
In essence it is:
- ensuring the school has a clear vision, ethos and strategic direction;
- holding the head to account for the performance of the school, especially the educational performance;
- overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure it is solvent and the money is well spent; and
- ensuring all regulatory requirements are met.
It's an odd construct, isn't it? As a board, my group of governors was an assembly of dedicated individuals, some now retired, some still working in our various professions full-time, some part-time; all wholly volunteers – none with an executive role within the school, unlike on a commercial board - who came into school (or during Covid did not) for meetings once or twice (or in some cases more) during each school term, but who were, legally, ultimately responsible for all that happened or was done in or by the school.
On my bad days – especially during some of the interminable Zoom meetings which we had during Covid lockdowns - I felt that we were just a necessary evil for the school; there has to be a governing body, because that is part of the required legal form, and we have to be seen to be signing off on various financial, safeguarding and other regulatory aspects of the school operation, but at times it felt that we were contributing little more. This dismal view was perhaps understandable - we were, after all, having to wrestle with difficult challenges in the midst of a wholly unforeseen operational crisis - but these feelings were not positive.
And yes, compliance with legal regulation is important. As a lawyer I am probably bound to think that, but the rules are there for good reason - to provide standards and a safe structure within which schools operate and which ensure it is accountable for its actions and omissions.
So, we have to recognise that a very important part of what we do as school governors is overseeing compliance. I was blessed that, at the school where I was a governor, we employ some consummate professionals who take the responsibility of the compliance function as their day job extremely seriously and fulfil it extremely well, and so make that oversight much more straightforward, but, as our regular review of the school's risk register demonstrates, there are very many areas where all governors need to be more aware – focusing on our assessment of risk in relation to our ongoing operation as an active and engaged process, not as a box-ticking exercise.
To take some slightly random examples from the risk register (and leaving aside the external, potentially existential, threats which the Labour party's proposals may pose to some independent schools):
- How can the board support the head and the bursar in the ever more difficult recruitment and retention of high calibre teachers and support staff?
- How clear is the board about the school's financial position, especially its cash resources and forward projections?
- What strategies does the school have if leading universities reduce further the numbers of students they will admit from independent schools?
- How confident are governors of their knowledge and understanding of the school's protections against cyber-attack?
Then, in relation to safeguarding, which is the acknowledged responsibility of all governors, not just the designated safeguarding governor:
- How would you describe the culture of safeguarding in your school, and on what do you base your assessment?
- Do you know what are the current trends in safeguarding in your school?
- If there has been a significant increase in safeguarding concerns in the school following lockdown, how have the governors responded to this?
- How do you satisfy yourself that the SLT is managing safeguarding incidents effectively?
- Has the school's provision of RSE changed since the Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools; if so, how?
But, in satisfying ourselves as governors on these and many other difficult questions across the whole spread of the school's operations, we must be sure to observe the governance, not management, boundary – recognising that the board's focus must be on strategy, performance and assurance, rather than the actual running of the school day to day.
Why are we doing it?
We will each have our own reasons why we originally became governors: some of us were parents of students at the school; some former pupils; some retired or current teachers; others hunted down as having skills we needed (an architect, employment lawyer, finance expert etc) and persuaded to join. But it is important for each governor periodically to reflect on why you are still on the board and, whatever brought you to the table, what keeps you in the role, so as to ensure that it is still to do with your commitment to the school (present and future) and to making your personal contribution to its governance, rather than habit, status, or any form of personal benefit (for yourself or, if a parent governor, in relation to your child). That is not said to encourage anyone to stand down, but because what a school needs from its governors is active and appropriate engagement.
Schools often recruit as governors people who already have close connections with the school, but, if this is the case, those recruits need to recognise that they must understand and engage with the school, its aspirations and its challenges, as they are now. This can apply in particular to governors who were pupils, parents or teachers at the school; their fond recollections of how the school used to be during their periods of close involvement on a different basis may not be the reality any longer. And any governors who are current parents as well as governors need to be able to separate properly their personal concerns for their child as pupil within the school from their role as a governor.
When a school is well run, it is easy to be lulled into a comfortable complacency – reading reports, approving proposals. When it is not so well run, governors may not know quite where to focus their attentions to best effect, and may be uncertain whether they have the right information to make informed decisions. And, whatever the school's situation, no school or its leadership can feel wholly comfortable, now or in the foreseeable future, given the external political and economic climate.
So, we need to challenge ourselves to understand what we can each individually bring for the school's benefit in our governor role. As a starting point, each governor can review their own past attendance at, and contribution to, governors' meetings, as well as considering how assiduously they read their meeting papers (and how far in advance), and how rigorously they interrogate them. Are they clear what is being provided to them for information; what for discussion; and what for decision? What do they need to focus on, so as to be able to raise pertinent questions? Are opportunities provided to them to gain better understanding of the school's life, and do they take them? Are there occasions for wider discussion of school strategy? Do they have the right mix of people (affording diversity of skills, personalities and backgrounds) on the board, and is there appropriate succession planning?
This brings me to my last questions…
What can we do better? How can we be more useful to the school?
In relation to these questions, I want to mention some guidance which is focused not on a governor's legal duties but rather on the characteristics of good governors - available here: The DfE’s 7 attributes of good governors - Governors for Schools. As with all such lists, it can be salutary to check periodically how well each of us measures up, and to consider how we might improve.
Fundamental to all that we do as governors, if we are to do the role well, is understanding the school better - what it is seeking to achieve, the subtlety and complexity of its message, as well as the environment in which it is operating (which includes its interactions with the parents), and the ever-increasing demands on its staff at a time when recruitment and retention of the high calibre staff which the school needs are ever more difficult. It is also understanding something of the demands on the students themselves – for instance, the burdens of expectation (whether of being the 'perfect achiever', or of looking or behaving in a certain way); or the ever-present chatter of social media; or the pressures of dysfunctional families - which may affect their mental health.
Against this background, we, as governors, need to understand and engage with whatever is the school's essential ethos. In the case of the school where I was a governor, its aims and its associated teaching and learning style were grounded in an educational approach designed to enable each student to develop into a resilient individual, analytical and constructive, resourceful and caring, and well equipped for their future, including the world of work. I expect many other schools would empathise with these objectives.
We should each bring the perspectives of our current day jobs or past experience to the role of governor. So, be aware of what you can do, and especially where your insights may be helpful. This could include using your professional background - for instance, analysis of risks associated with a building project, whether from the commercial, legal, financial or other perspectives. Or it could be suggesting a different approach to reporting - for instance, a 'business case' approach, which addresses all key items with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, so as to ensure an informed but focused report and debate at governors' meetings. But also acknowledge that the head and the rest of the SLT are the educational experts. Even if you are lucky enough to have educationalists on your board, any current ones are likely to be very busy elsewhere, and the retired ones need to acknowledge that pedagogy is a fast-moving discipline which may well be very different now from when they taught.
As we are the overseers of the school's operations, we obviously need, where appropriate, to query or debate what is being done. We also need to determine how we can best help, from a governance perspective, in promoting the school's strategy, and assisting and, where necessary, defending, the head and the school's staff in relation to it. This involves creating a relationship of trust and mutual confidence and understanding between the board and the SLT, and, absolutely crucially, between the chair of governors and the head. This is key to a positive and constructive association; put simply, the head and the rest of the SLT are unlikely to feel comfortable to give governors the open and honest information, which the governors need in order to be able to understand the school for which they are ultimately responsible, if the governors do not make it ‘safe’ for the school's leaders to be honest with them.
Everything that you do must be built on knowledge of, and commitment to, the school. This requires time, and effort, and, as discussed above, sensitivity. Listen and learn; think before you speak. It can be an enormously rewarding experience – in my case, to see a school, which was already good, become I believe, under the leadership of the current head, a truly exceptional school. It does require dedication, but it can be worth it.