A call to action: become a school governor

I was delighted to see Julie Robinson’s call to action last week, encouraging people to apply to become school governors, and I urge you to watch it. Julie is the CEO of the UK Independent Schools’ Council, representing the organisations which support the vast majority of independent schools throughout the country, and she is also one of the most committed advocates I know for social mobility and community engagement through education; her call to action is equally on behalf of state as well as independent schools. If you have ever considered being a school governor – or even if you have never considered it – then now is the time to apply, to support schools and their leaders as they navigate some of the toughest and most challenging times they have ever experienced.

What, though, do school leaders need from their board members? While coaching and supporting school leaders across the world over the past 6 years, since leaving school Headship myself, I have noted the emergence of a number of crystal-clear themes – themes which apply to every single type of school, wherever they are on the globe, and whatever structure they have. The following lists draw together some of these observations …

School leaders need a board which:

  • collectively has a deep, shared and coherent understanding of a vision for the school, as well as its current reality and challenges;
  • contains a group of people with diverse perspectives and a range of backgrounds, so that they can bring a range of viewpoints and spot areas or gaps or assumptions which might not be evident to the leader or others on the board;
  • is unafraid to use its voice, but which recognises the equal importance of appropriate support and keen, insightful challenge;
  • channels active energy effectively into what really matters, usually supported in this by sensible structures such as committees and the guidance of a board chair who is wise enough to know that they are only a part of the structure;
  • recognises that its purpose is not to manage the school, but to provide governance for it … and so which has been prepared to learn what good governance really is.

What they don’t need is a board which:

  • panics;
  • is swayed in its decision-making by board members who bring what they hear in the playground into the boardroom and define this as ‘fact’;
  • believes that its role is to invent multiple initiatives and expects them to be adopted by the school leadership team, without due consideration of the impact of these, and whether they properly further the vision;
  • is negligent, not challenging the numbers and statements made by the leadership team – appropriate and strong challenge is one of the vital elements of the value that board members bring; 
  • which does not build a sense of their corporate responsibility, part of which will almost certainly include connecting either with each other and the school leadership beyond attendance at meetings.

Over the past few months I have heard tales of two extremes of governance in schools … and the best of these have been of boards which have taken their responsibilities for the future of the school seriously, meeting regularly online, adapting their processes to work around the pressures on their school leaders, and stepping up both their level of scrutiny and of support. As most governors do this work entirely voluntarily, this has been a huge ask of them – they have been playing a very real and valuable part in the worldwide crisis which we are all experiencing.

It is almost certainly a fact that crises will tend to bring out the best and the worst in people; schools – the engines of our society, which have been dramatically affected by the restrictions imposed as a result of the fight against Covid-19 – deserve the absolute best from people.

So – watch Julie’s call to action, and, if you can, step up to the mark.

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