Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Now would be a good time for local authorities to launch a campaign to recruit more school governors. In particular, it is important to encourage greater cultural diversity in many areas.
Schools and colleges have had a difficult year, trying to deliver the best education, whilst responding to the Covid-19 crisis. There will be significant challenges ahead, when thousands of children across all age groups have been unable to engage with any online learning and parents have struggled with home-schooling. There is a big difference between helping with homework and teaching complex mathematics or a foreign language!
When schools return in September, children’s knowledge and progress will have to be individually evaluated, to bring them up to the appropriate educational standards for their age. Inevitably, some may have to drop back a year, adding pressure on Head Teachers (HT), who will have to decide how this can be managed, when space (for social distancing) will be at a premium.
This means that school governors will have an enhanced role, helping and supporting – and challenging – the HT and staff, potentially assuming greater responsibility for specific areas of oversight, as they would at other times of crisis, establishing sub-committees.
With a shortage of governors nationally, now is an opportunity for parents, as well as community volunteers to put themselves forward; local businesses should also encourage their young staff to sign up, increasing their communication and management skills. Finance, legal, and property expertise are often in short supply on governance boards, yet that knowledge is key to professional school management. Fresh faces, with fresh ideas, are essential in enabling schools to adapt to changing circumstances, and raise standards, especially if schools have failed in recent Ofsted inspections.
Under normal circumstances, each governor would adopt particular projects, building on their own interests, working with staff, to ensure that agreed policies and strategies, both local and national, are complied with, and developed. Raising aspiration and achievement is at the heart of good governance; Ofsted expects governors to have a detailed understanding of a school’s priorities in delivering a broad educational experience for all children – and will interview them in considerable depth accordingly.
For example, governors allocated to Special Educational Needs (SEN), a complex and demanding specialism, with wide implications for mental health and child protection, will be required to demonstrate progress in meeting clear objectives. The best outcomes require children to be fully integrated into school life as much as possible, allowing them to maximise their abilities and future independence.
Being a governor is a major commitment, but many help with reading in primaries or, using their own qualifications, assist with maths, music, art, or the sciences. They can also introduce new initiatives, with the HT’s approval – why don’t schools teach touch typing, when everyone uses a computer nowadays, and it is so much faster?
Encouraging new experiences is all-important, especially in deprived areas. So, at weekends, some governors coach youngsters in various games, building relationships with clubs and other schools, including private schools, to broaden opportunities beyond football. Governors with a passion for culture and the arts build relationships with other organisations, whilst helping with drama productions and concerts. Outside space is a benefit for good mental health, and if their own site is restricted, schools may take on an allotment to share with children and their families, growing vegetables and teaching simple healthy recipes.
Governors can also make a real difference by being aware of – and securing – additional funding from charities, community funds, and the lottery, to meet specific plans for projects and trips.
From a young age, children need to be aware of the potential career opportunities which could be available to them in manufacturing, wind farms, engineering, industry, hospitality, conservation and the professions – as well as the Armed Services. Raising awareness encourages aspiration and builds confidence.
Although too many HTs reject the idea, this means inviting people from across a broad range of specialisms to come into school, including primaries, meeting pupils and teachers, to explain their work and the particular skills needed for future employment. University is not the only solution, especially when youngsters have no plans for life after getting a degree; technical colleges are the route to apprenticeships and life skills with good earning potential. Governors can also be mentors, introducing young people to employers and sharing their own experiences in building a career.
With the Government’s promises to invest millions in upgrading school premises, property management is another key issue. Local authorities tend to have superficial information, so governors with appropriate professional knowledge can take the lead in devising a fully costed co-ordinated maintenance and safety plan, instead of just responding to property emergencies. It is better value for money, especially for older buildings; local architects and construction companies are usually keen to provide free advice, whilst the Fire Service will also do safety checks.
Keeping young people safe also means securing physical boundaries around schools, and educating them about the dangers of becoming involved in criminal groups. With county lines, this is a considerable challenge, so having a good relationship with parent groups and police neighbourhood teams is a huge benefit. Governors can help, by monitoring and developing an understanding of the issues which have to be addressed; older children can become police cadets.
Everyone deserves the best possible education, introducing them to a lifetime of learning and enjoyment, as well as utilising their talents in rewarding careers. Although unpaid, being a school governor is a significant contribution to society and local communities.
So, for those tempted, the first step is to read the Government’s excellent document which sets out the expected governors’ skills and responsibilities. They need to be DBS-approved (Disclosure & Barring Service) and can make their own application (costing £23).
They may then approach their chosen school directly, consult the local education authority for advice, or complete the application form on the Government’s website. Once appointed, there is plenty of good training available and regular updates on current and new legislation as well as a platform for sharing best practice.
Local councillors are often invited to join a governing board, but it is important to keep politics out of school because it can be a distraction during decision-making; acting in the best interests of the children and the school must always be a priority, regardless of one’s own political views.