Governing their future: musings on the life and times of school governing in England

According to the NGA (National Governors Association) an increasing number of school governors are very confused about their role in today’s education system (source NGA).

At one time the role was very clear: you only have to read Joan Sallis’ excellent history of school governance to trace the fascinating evolution of this very singular role. Brought in to ensure financial probity of schools that were funded by philanthropists or the church, the role of the governor took on a life of its own, moving through phases during which the emphasis shifted from democratic representation to a more business orientated model of governing. During this time the role of the parent became increasingly highlighted (See Andrew Wilkins’- #Andewilkins’great work on parents as school governors). And yet, today in spite of the fact that they are one of the biggest volunteer forces in England with a job description which more closely resembles that of a company director than an unpaid volunteer, there is evidence to suggest that they are increasingly wondering what exactly they are there to do.

In my own experience this has always been the case. I started off as governor in a tiny village primary school: ‘Go on join us on governors; we need people like you,’ cajoled a well-established governor who also happened to be VP of the local FE college (my son was 5 he’d been at school barely three weeks- talk about grab them early). People like me, I wondered: and what sort of person is that? And it still remains a pertinent question today: what qualities do we want in this position that is so pivotal to the success or failure of a school that poor governance has been cited by both Ofsted and in a good deal of US research as one of the key reasons for school closure?

I was cajoled…. and remained a governor for 17 years, moving through the system as my three children moved up. I enjoyed the role; it was good to feel part of the school; to be on first name terms with the teachers and head and to gain a unique perspective on the backroom ops of a school. But right through the system I always felt that seed of doubt: was I doing this right? What were we achieving as governors? There was training- good training available but it’s a funny old position being a governor: often recruited for your professional skills yet applying them in a very different context from the day job…being a parent governor yet resisting the urge to bring tales from the school gate into the board room and certainly never daring to venture the fact that whilst the general focus of the meeting that evening is on the great exam results, your little Jonny came home in tears after Miss X failed to intervene in a bullying situation.

During my time as a governor I saw people cope with the role in several different ways: some gained a sense of purpose by doing their day job in school : HR adviser out of school HR adviser on governors; some drew their sense of purpose by feeling like teacher watchdogs: keeping an eye on the staff …just in case they should get out of hand if they were not there to pounce on any misdemeanour. And some drew their governor identities from a sense of doing what was right for the school- steering it through the choppy waters of the latest set of initiatives and the 100 page+ Governor Guide to the Law. Of course there were those that were on governors purely for a front seat at the school concert; but over the years as the workload burgeoned, that type melted away. I can’t say that I met a single governor that didn’t have the children/student interest at heart; but the articulation of this varied enormously from governor to governor.

Governors of today are having to adapt to myriad changes as new school autonomies, in very many cases, leave them directly responsible to the Secretary of State. During these times of change it is more important than ever that they feel secure and certain of their roles and governor identities: that they feel that they are doing a good job for their schools and pupils. But as the pressure and workload on them increases what type of folk will still be drawn to this role? As governing bodies conform increasingly to business models, introducing performance management and other tools of the trade; how will the governor feel then? More importantly, if governors begin to leave in their droves what will the government do to replace this 300, 000 strong volunteer force ?

In 2012 I attended my final governor meeting. After 17 years it was time for a break; time to reflect on my time as a governor and use that experience to ground my research. Do I miss it? Yes sometimes – I miss being that cog in the wheel, I miss the highs of school life and the camaraderie of pulling together as a team when times got tough. When I left I received a note from the chair ‘thank you for your contributions during your time as governor, ‘I still ponder over that….what exactly were those contributions in the end ? Did we change things or were we just rubber stampers? Did others sit around the table feeling at sea or was it just me?

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