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‘Most businesses don’t see school governance as a way of giving back to the local community’

Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key and Ten Governor, and chair of governors at Saint Gabriel’s College in Brixton, writes:  
The TES recently reported on the Department for Education’s adoption of a “more professional standard of school governance", following the claim from Governors’ for Schools’ that in some parts of the country, one in ten school positions remain unfilled.
I can’t help but think that a vital point has been missed in the government’s aims: in order to get professionals onto school governing boards, you have to provide the right conditions for them to perform this role. It sounds obvious, but the kind of professionals that are much needed on governing bodies, such as lawyers, accountants, HR specialists, or risk analysts, work long hours and are not able to get to 4pm governing body meetings, let alone attend the training required to be effective governors.
The Key recently surveyed more than 1,000 governors and found that only 37 per cent of those in permanent employment are given any form of support for being a governor by their employer. The number was even lower (33 per cent) for those working in the private sector.
The problem lies in the fact that most businesses don’t see school governance as a way of giving back to the local community and it doesn’t form part of their social corporate responsibility strategies. If you asked the majority of business leaders what the role of a school governor entails, they would not be able to tell you.
If only companies saw the development opportunities that a really strong governing body offers its members. Planning, strategic thinking, evaluating, persuading, challenging, summarising, interviewing are just some of the activities I have been engaged with as a governor. I’m sure it would have cost me a fortune to get the same value from a leadership course. And that’s why, in my company, we give four extra days’ annual leave to any member of staff who becomes a school governor. But most companies don’t do anything like this. 
It is a lack of awareness I would argue that makes them unwilling to offer their staff flexible working hours to perform governing body duties. And this has led, at least in part, to the growing distance between the government’s vision for a more robust and professional model for school governance and the reality of how working governors (or prospective governors) are actually treated.
All the while, governors’ responsibilities are increasing. They not only hire heads and assist with senior appointments, but also agree school strategy and are held to increasing account by Ofsted for pupils’ results. In the past three months or so, the governors at Saint Gabriel’s College in Brixton, where I am the current chair, have written job specifications for the next principal, designed a two-day assessment, interviewed and evaluated candidates; as well as the ‘normal’ activity of monitoring progress against our school development plan. 
Being a school governor may be a voluntary role, but it is one which has enormous impact on the nation’s children and young people. If there isn’t full collaboration between the government and employers in guaranteeing that governors can be effective, we won’t get the more professional governing boards that we want. The sooner the government talks to employers’ organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors to get them onside with this agenda, the better.

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