Why we must make governors’ workload sustainable

Tackling governors' growing workload is essential if we are to secure the future of our school system, says Emma Knights

Emma Knights

The workload of our volunteer school governors is becoming unmanageable, warns Emma Knights, of the National Governance Association

An extraordinary 250,000 people volunteer their time and skills to oversee state schools in England in the interests of pupils.

This amazing volunteer army sets the vision for schools and trusts: what children should leave the school knowing, having done, and being. They make important decisions about staffing structures, what limited funding is spent on, and, of course, recruiting headteachers. The responsibility that rests on their shoulders is vast.

Are you a governor, trustee or local academy committee member? Please take part in the 2019 NGA-Tes survey

But there continues to be a huge gap in official national data and academic research on governance. This is why for eight consecutive years, the NGA has been running a survey of school governors and trustees in partnership with Tes. Since 2015, we have had more than 5,000 respondents from across England and all types of schools. Without this, little would be known about governing boards and what they think about the challenges their schools face.

This annual event captures that wealth of knowledge and experience to inform our work. But let’s take one particular strand. Let’s look at workload. 

It hardly needs saying, but staff workload has long been a major concern for the school governing board. Last year was no different: two-thirds of respondents said that workload was a problem in their school, and many were making moves to help reduce it.

School governors 'must be heard'

A lesser known issue, however, is the growing workload of the volunteers who are governors. Last year, 40 per cent of respondents disagreed that their responsibilities were manageable within 10 to 20 equivalent days per year, a benchmark we have taken from the charity sector.

In response to this finding, NGA recently published research showing that it takes to an average of one day a week to chair a multi-academy trust. This raises concerns about the sustainability of this contribution, and a second phase of the research – to be published this week – aims to identify whether and how chairs of MATs can adopt strategies to reduce the time commitment.

Governance is, of course, essential if the MAT model is going to be sustainable. When governance fails, so, too, does the MAT. And an essential part of avoiding these failures is ensuring that that work being racked up by trustees is sustainable.

That the voice of governors and trustees – and their concerns – is heard is essential if we are to secure the future of the schools system.

Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governance Association

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