Imagine you come across a job advert that lists the following:
- Anti-social hours;
- High levels of accountability;
- Zero pay.
Interested? No, I thought not.
However, this is exactly how an advert for the role of governor could read.
In light of this, you could be forgiven for assuming that those who do answer the call have praise and gratitude heaped upon them. Not so.
Over the past decade, school governors have become used to feeling largely undervalued and marginalised by policymakers. Former education secretary Michael Gove was particularly derogatory in the way he spoke about school governors, once describing them as: “Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work.” His successor attempted to remove the role of parent-governor altogether.
In more recent times, the government’s view of governors can probably best be described as luke-warm. Few ministerial speeches or announcements make reference to the important role governors are playing in so many of our schools.
With this backdrop, it is easy to understand why schools don’t always find it particularly easy to fill their governing bodies, and why it can be even harder to find a person willing to step up to take on the role of chair of governors.
And yet people still do.
Up and down the country you can find the lights of school buildings shining late into the evening as governors sit down with school leaders to scrutinise budgets, monitor standards and consider the overall strategic direction of the school. We should remember that the vast majority do this whilst also holding down full-time jobs of their own, and also let’s not forget the staff governors who voluntarily stay back for meetings after a full day in school.
So why do they do it? If we are completely honest, there probably is a tiny proportion who do go into it for the wrong reasons – for the status or for personal interest. But, in my experience, this really is a small number. Most do it because they care. They recognise the importance of their local school and want to contribute. Put simply, they want to help. Once in the role, many governors will talk about how rewarding they find it and how much they enjoy being part of the school community.
'Governors play a critical role'
The relationship between governors and school leaders is a critical one. As someone who works for a school leaders’ union, I know that occasionally the relationship between leaders and governors can become strained; often this can occur when the line between the strategic and operational becomes blurred.
With that in mind, you might expect me to be slightly luke-warm myself. But I’m not.
It’s my view that governors play an absolutely critical role in our school system. They provide a vital link between the school and its local community. I have always maintained that if anyone can claim to "own a school", then it surely belongs to the local community it serves. It seems to me that local governors are probably the best mechanism we have for maintaining this important link.
Their role has become more important than ever in our increasingly fragmented school system, where in some cases the ultimate decision-makers cans appear somewhat removed from the schools they oversee.
When the relationship between governors and school leaders is working well (and this requires effort on both sides), it can be an overwhelming force for good in a school.
It’s time for government to recognise this, and to do more to support and celebrate the work that so many of these unpaid volunteers do for our schools. Improved access to high-quality training, especially for new governors, would be a good place to start. A greater emphasis on mentoring and support would help, too. The availability and quality of this support shouldn’t be dependent on geographical location, but instead there should be be a firm commitment to every governor nationwide.
James Bowen is director of the NAHT Edge middle leaders’ union, and a former head of an 'outstanding' primary. He tweets @JamesJkbowen