When the great and the good address governors and trustees, I put money on them using the phrase "unsung heroes". From the responses to our 2017 school governance survey, the National Governance Association estimated that there were at least a quarter of a million volunteers giving their time and considerable skills to state-funded schools across England. Even though it’s now down a bit from the previous year, as boards are generally getting a little bit smaller, a quarter of a million people – that is significant proportion of the English adult population. More than those participating in park runs every Saturday or coaching junior football or singing in choirs, and ten times the numbers of headteachers in England. There are lots of us about, but well hidden from view.
Those governing are immensely knowledgeable about our state schools; but that knowledge, expertise and experience is not sufficiently mined by the Department for Education when making policy. One source they could turn to is our annual governance survey (organised with Tes), which is held each summer term: open now until 11 June.
Similarly, we are extremely pleased to be welcoming education secretary Damian Hinds to our summer conference in a couple of weeks' time – this will be the first time in three years that the secretary of state has addressed and been questioned by an audience of school governors and trustees. When Nicky Morgan spoke at an NGA summer conference in 2015, school funding was already the most popular question topic – I will be very surprised if this has changed, given that last year’s survey told us that balancing the budget was the biggest concern of governing boards, overtaking raising pupil attainment for the first time. In 2015 most of those funding questions for Nicky Morgan came from those in some of the lowest funded authorities, whereas now, with costs rising across the country, the worries about funding are even more widespread, and funding for children with high special educational needs is deeply concerning.
Governors deserve recognition
When NGA and others make the case for improved funding for schools, the Department for Education response is to accept that there are challenges, but to maintain that these can all be overcome by using public funding more efficiently. The survey gives you the opportunity to explain the implications of funding constraints on the offer being made to pupils at your school, both curricular and extracurricular.
Education ministers will talk about the transformational impact that boards can have when they collaborate with heads and other executive leaders, and they now acknowledge that greater risk comes with increased school autonomy, making governance all the more important. So what should sort of recognition should NGA be lobbying for? Magistrates can put JP after their names; what about those who govern schools and academy trusts having GS (governor of a school) after their names? It might also help to bring schools governance out from behind closed doors, and show others that this is a respected, as well as responsible, role.
This would be one way of improving the status. And that is needed. The annual Tes/NGA survey is also the most comprehensive source of information about who is governing our schools. Just 10 per cent of respondents to last year’s survey were under 40 years of age and just 4 per cent gave their ethnicity as black, Asian or minority ethnic; most shocking of all is the fact that this figure has not risen over the past 20 years. There is evidence from all sectors showing that boards are strengthened when they include people from a range of backgrounds, views, knowledge and experiences. Diversity helps to ensure internal challenge and debate, avoiding "group think". So another legacy of the annual governance survey has been a campaign from NGA and Inspiring Governance, the governor recruitment service, to increase the diversity of school governing boards.
Governors, please don’t hide your light under a bushel. Our survey proves that your voice can be heard.
Take the survey here.
Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governance Association