From memory it was a spring Sunday morning in 2003. I walked into church around 09.50 in plenty of time for Sunday Mass which is advertised at 10.00 whereas actually 10.04 would be more accurate. I was there for the weekly absolution of my more heinous sins such as having convinced Mrs Y the previous evening that those rump steaks really were within the “eat by” date. She did not accompany me to church that particular morning due to a stomach upset. There to greet me at the porch was our jovial Parish Priest who immediately whispered “I need to see you after Mass Neil.” That subsequent discussion was not what I expected. “We have a vacancy for a Foundation Governor and I thought you would be the perfect candidate.” Roughly translated that meant “I need a governor to represent the interests of the church in the school and you’re the only person under ninety with the use of his or her legs that I can think of.”
Now I’m quite old-fashioned about these things. I was brought up to respect my elders and most certainly be deferential to the clergy. So before I could ask what the job entailed and the term of office I had meekly agreed to join the board of governors and at the same time ensured my place as one of God’s Chosen Ones for at least another seven days of wine-fuelled debauchery. My conscientiousness directed me to research the role. The first comment I found was from the American author Mark Twain who said “In the first place God made idiots. That was just for practice. Then he made school boards.” That made me feel more at home. It was suggested I join the Finance Committee. Clearly it was not widely known that I have never even attempted to look after the family finances such is my appalling track record with anything to do with money management and balancing books.
I remember approaching my first meeting with no little trepidation. We met in the staff room and I was introduced as the new boy. At that stage there had been no overview of the role, no partnering with a mentor, or any explanation of how things worked other than the obligatory warning of the proliferation of acronyms. I sat on on a comfortable chair shuffling papers trying to look professional but feeling increasingly out of my depth. In truth that would probably have been worse now than it was then. Back in t’ day few questions were asked. The Head confirmed we had money in the bank, progress and attainment were good, and that children were happy. She was, and still is, a lovely lady with the children close at heart so why wouldn’t we believe her without probing any deeper? I had two children there, with two to surely follow, hence I had a deep vested interest but Number One son and Number Two son’s experience of school mirrored the Head’s description so I was happy.
In 2010 the Head retired and we had to go through the recruitment process for a replacement. This is physically and emotionally draining given the magnitude of the decision being made but we came through the process unscathed and hence began a new chapter in the life of our little mill-town primary school. Two years later, after a meeting, the Parish Priest asked to see me again. He is a wise and intelligent man and admittedly a little eccentric but whilst he might exasperate some, I respect him deeply. He told me his role as Chair was increasingly at odds with his pastoral position in the Parish and that the Diocese was encouraging clergy to divest themselves of this conflict of interest. Would I be prepared to become Chair with his ongoing support as Vice-Chair? Another bolt from the blue given that, even in my late forties, most of my colleagues were older and more experienced. I agreed to his request provided my fellow governors were happy. I was elected unanimously and with great warmth and I have to say I have never had a day since where I felt any opposition or animosity from a single governor.
My accession to the throne coincided with two things. I was in my second of a three year degree course in Education and Society which had necessarily made me more interested in education broadly, but also developed my abilities to dig below the surface for more, and often detailed information. I joined Twitter soon afterwards and from afar began to read comments, blogs, and articles from the great and good of online school governance. It quickly became apparent to me that we were not modelling many of the processes highlighted as best practice. We moved meetings to a classroom with tables where we could spread out papers and write more comfortably. Questions were actively encouraged. Roles were aligned to the school improvement plan rather than the traditional model of curriculum subjects. We met staff. We met children. We met parents. And we began a journey to where we are today. In my view we are an excellent governing body blessed with relevant experience and expertise but more importantly a collective commitment to make our school the best it can be even if that means asking difficult questions and posing significant challenges to the school’s leadership. Only recently I attempted to set up a cluster governance group with our fellow local Catholic primaries. The response was lukewarm to stone cold. However I am proud that WE have emerged from the silo of insularity that still marks so many governing boards in the local authority sector.
I decided to write this blog not just to chart my own journey. Those of us involved in governance and using Twitter will collectively have literally hundreds of thousands of friends and followers who are not governors. Some may have considered it. Many would be highly appropriate and most welcome recruits. Recently we have quite rightly been concerned with teacher recruitment and retention. We must never forget however that attracting and developing governors and trustees is equally vital to the long-term sustainability of British education. But, if we are to go out into the ether and evangelise the gospel of governance I believe we need to offer an honest precis of what it involves. It’s no good wrapping the perception of the role in cotton wool only to find new recruits leave pretty quickly having witnessed the warts and all version. So an honest personal appraisal of the life of a governor is, I believe, what’s needed.
Without doubt life was much easier before becoming Chair. I was a member of a committee and had responsibility for History. A piffling role in the greater scheme of things. I produced one report in three years. I chucked in my twopennyworth in Finance meetings but often budgeting went over my head. However, I was able to pop into school occasionally to help out on trips, and see happy, safe children engaged in their learning. And of course those visits almost always refuel and reinvigorate us from the slumber of data analysis and remind us why we do what we do. I believe I used my own skills and abilities to make a difference but also acknowledge that these qualities were being further enhanced by acting as a governor. In other words it was certainly beneficial to my own CV. Beyond that it was basically two meetings per term with a bit of prior preparation for each. However, it was never onerous and I genuinely felt I was contributing to the life of the school. Despite me having two children there I can honestly say I was never acting out of self-interest but from a deep-felt desire to help make the school great in every way.
I believe that around the time I became chair, the expectations of responsibilities of all governors significantly increased. OFSTED was starting to look critically at governance as part of leadership and management and there was an inherent assumption that boards would be totally professional in their approach to governance and in their own training and self-development. A much greater emphasis was placed on the understanding of data and what that told us about progress or lack of progress of certain groups. Inevitably that placed additional pressure on us all. And as unpaid servants, for some this was too much. Some found the workload difficult to balance as many of our workplaces started to also make greater demands of staff. Family circumstances changed for some. But largely we kept our core of governors and the direction of travel was thankfully sustained.
So what’s good about governing in a school or academy? Well firstly you will grow as a person, not just in knowledge acquisition but also in the development of skills. You will probably become more confident and less immediately accepting of what you’re first told. You will become business like even though schools are not businesses. You will see children, at work and at play, growing as young people in every way. You will be privileged to see children succeed in sports, excel at drama, and bring a tear to your eye as they sing a solo or play a trumpet in public for the first time. You will make a difference to the lives of those children, their families, and the wonderful staff without whom our schools clearly could not function. Most of all you will experience a feel good factor that only comes from seeing your voluntary time and efforts translated into something so deeply rewarding.
What’s not so good then Neil? Undoubtedly the demands on the time of governors have significantly gone up. The days of tea-drinking, cake-munching nodding dogs have been rightly consigned to Room 101. You will receive lots of paperwork which you are expected to both read and understand. Furthermore you are required to come armed with questions to dig beneath the superficiality and challenge those charged with educating our children. As a friend to staff and parents outside of school you cannot always share that same relationship in your role as governor. Your shoulder which was previously available for crying on now must be removed to a respectful distance. For some that has threatened friendships. None of us, however experienced, are true experts and hence the need for regular training and development is a necessity right across governance. This will mean additional time taken out of your busy lives to upskill yourselves. And yes, increasingly in the current climate, governors are being asked to make horrible decisions which can directly impact on the livelihood of staff members with all the accompanying angst and emotion.
From a Chair’s perspective I would say my personal development has been enormous. I now feel emboldened to manage meetings even though of course, I am still massively reliant on our Clerk to pull me into line! I am much more confident in the company of senior leaders, local authority figures, and fellow governors. If you are passionate about education being chair affords you a unique opportunity to drive the governing board in the direction you believe is best. You have the scope to place your own indelible mark on how the board operates. You can inspire, enthuse, cajole, and even smilingly browbeat colleagues. By your own example you can model rigorous questioning, ownership of a brief, a presence in school, and a relationship of appropriate challenge yet support with the Head. In my own particular case being Chair of a “Good” school meant I could successfully apply to be a National Leader of Governance. That means I can now use my own experience, and hopefully a little expertise, to offer a helping hand to other schools in temporary need. For me it was never about the colour of the uniform, it was always about the children wearing it irrespective of the building in which they were being taught.
That sounds great doesn’t it? And by and large it is. But being Chair isn’t always easy. As a result of necessary and difficult past decisions some people no longer speak to me. Worse still my wife and children have had people treat them differently. This is upsetting. Whilst a supportive Vice-Chair is vital, inevitably at times you feel a degree of isolation. Often you are burdened with highly confidential issues which you cannot share but can be deeply troubling and weigh enormously. I have lost many hours sleep as Chair considering how to deal with delicate and complex matters often carrying serious consequences. I cringe when I receive a letter of complaint from a parent, carer, or member of staff because I know the huge, time-consuming, and emotive challenges that the subsequent investigation and correspondence will bring. In the run-up to our most recent inspection I was devoting ten to fifteen hours work per week ensuring our evidence files were updated, all governors understood their brief, and that the school development plan accurately mirrored our governance priorities. That on top of working over forty hours per week in my salaried role and having the same family commitments we all face.
So would I recommend being a governor? Overwhelmingly I would do yes. Volunteering your time and energy to benefit others is ingrained in British society and you will receive great satisfaction and warmth from seeing our youngest members of society benefit from your altruism. Don’t worry about getting into school regularly. If you work full time that does not disbar you from governance. Others, perhaps retired colleagues can be a more prominent presence in school whilst you can offer a meaningful input in other ways. You will develop personally as the school develops under your stewardship. Put simply you will be able to derive the unimaginable pleasure of seeing Year Eleven Amy, who came to high school introverted and friendless singing Ave Maria at the Leavers’ Mass in front of dozens of caring and admiring pals.
And what about being Chair? The sad reality is few of us get to choose if or when we are appointed. Indeed I know some Chairs who entered their first meeting as a governor and left having been elected to that role. It’s not a job for everybody. Not all people are leaders or have any inclination to so be. However, if you believe that through your own example, enthusiasm, diplomacy, and unflinching high expectation you can drive your board’s agenda to take the school to its next level then go for it. It is admittedly lovely sometimes, when times are good, to take a step back and reflect on the small part you have played in that particular cause for celebration. One thing I would recommend is that if you are approached to become Chair, or successfully put yourself forward for election, then immediately seek a mentor to help you through those uncertain first few months. Speak to your LA or MAT or Diocese, or the Inspiring Governance team, and see if an NLG or suitably experienced colleague would be willing to assist. I’ve never known the answer be negative. Those formative weeks are critical and will help you hit the ground running and hence ensure continuity of good governance. The title of this blog is a direct quote from a child at my first meeting as Chair with the children. Who wouldn’t want to be in government eh?