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Can schools survive without a critical friend?

TES recently reported that there has been a massive slash in the number of school governors, linked to the increasing number of academy conversions. Having been a school governor myself since 2013, I’m continually amazed at the level of responsibility we have and the decisions we’re asked to make, so this announcement is concerning.

Governing bodies at local authority schools are a mix of staff, parents and ‘co-opted’ governors; local people with the skills, enthusiasm and time to support the school and make a positive contribution to young people’s education. There are over 250,000 governors in England, making us the largest volunteering body in the country, and it’s estimated that we contribute £1 billion to the education budget.

Governors are increasingly in the spotlight when it comes to assessing the success of individual schools and considering the education system as a whole – debates over whether we should be paid, how scrupulous recruitment of governors is, and how well governing bodies hold school leaders to account. There are high expectations placed on us too. We’re interviewed as part of OFSTED inspections, accountable for balancing the school budget and responsible for appraising the senior leadership team. We’re there to be schools’ critical friend.

But now, when a school becomes part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), traditional governor responsibilities are transferred over to trustees. This has led to the estimated loss of 68,000 governor roles.

One of my biggest reservations with this is that, in many instances, academy trustees might not be familiar with the local area, or even have visited the school before becoming responsible for major decisions affecting the staff, children and parents.

The change could also impact representation. Currently, 95% of governors are white, and only 8% are under 40, meaning that the demographic of the school community is not always represented on a governing body. This balance is unlikely to improve if the move away from traditional governance continues, with fewer parents and individuals from the community involved.

It’s clear there is still a need for dynamic, skilled, passionate and diverse volunteers, willing to maintain strong and consistent governing bodies through today’s challenging education landscape. The added value that governors can bring to a small primary school like mine is huge, and very different to that provided by a board of trustees. An understanding of the specific challenges different schools face because of their location and community demographic, the strengths of the staff body and the priorities of the school go beyond a school’s conversion to an academy and can take time to really understand.

There are 30,000 school governor vacancies in England alone; if you’re looking for a worthwhile and rewarding volunteering opportunity, why not get in touch with your local school? The rewards are high; I’ve learnt to think more strategically, analyse complex budgets, interviewed deputy head teachers, met with key senior stakeholders and played a positive role in developing the children’s schooling.

You can find out more about becoming a school governor through nga.org.uk or inspiringgovernance.org.

 

About the author

Becky Feetham

Becky combines a passion for education with experience of delivering meaningful employability projects to young people, having managed partnerships with organisations to raise young people's aspirations. She currently leads on HS2’s primary school programme and works with LifeSkills created with Barclays to expand reach, engaging with teachers and providing advice on the education landscape. She is also chair of governors at a primary school in East London.

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