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Amy Underdown - 15 July, 2022

Category : Blog

The role of school governors

Many individuals in the Arbor team have a background in education, be it as a MAT leader, school teacher or even as a free school founder. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that we also have many school governors in our midst. We sat down with four of our team to ask them about the role

Many individuals in the Arbor team have a background in education, be it as a MAT leader, school teacher or even as a free school founder. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that we also have many school governors in our midst. We sat down with four of our team to ask them about the role of school governors, how they became governors, and why they decided to commit to taking on the responsibilities of this important position. 

Meet Arbor’s governors:

what do school governors do

Why did you become a school governor?

Rebecca: I wanted to give back to my local community, especially during a time when I knew schools were struggling during Covid. I love the area I live in North West London and wanted to feel more involved in what’s happening around me. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to gain board experience at a young age.

Andrew: I initially became a Parent Governor initially because I wanted to make sure that my child was getting the best education possible. I’ve now matured in that view and realised that this was a very one-dimensional approach. What I like about my role as a governor now is that I’m helping to shape the opportunities and life chances of young people that I’ll likely never meet. 

Dan: Prior to working for Arbor, I was a teacher and senior leader in secondary schools for 13 years. The insights I gained from working on the front line of education for so long have helped to shape the work I have done with Arbor ever since. My understanding of school life in 2016 only helps so much though, and keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of education is extremely important in order to fully understand all of the challenges schools face. Becoming a governor provided the perfect opportunity for me to continue to learn in this way. To start with, I chaired the Teaching and Learning Committee for a federation of special schools and then after a few years made the transition to my current role as a trustee in a MAT, where I chair the Pay, Performance and Personnel Committee. This is a step away from my previous expertise, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to learn new skills.  

How do you become a school governor?

Beth: At first, I thought I might be too young, or have too little experience and expertise to be a governor, but a colleague encouraged me to think about it. I made myself a profile on Inspiring Governance, which links people who want to be governors with schools that need them. I had a chat with the Head and had a virtual tour of the school, and after a few months, they needed a new Chair. So it was a bit of a baptism of fire. What I learned is that it’s not about expertise as such; it’s more important to be present and have the right attitude. If you’re passionate about education and have the time to offer, then that’s brilliant. 

Rebecca: I’m a co-opted governor, which means I’m somebody from the local community that the governing board chooses. I applied to three governing recruitment websites, which have lots of resources about what it means to be a governor and where you can upload your application and be found by schools looking for governors. Someone reached out to me, I had an initial screening with the Chair of Governors and then was invited to go to the school to meet the Headteacher and SLT. 

What is the role of a school governor?

Beth: As Chair, I manage the meetings, try to keep things to time and make sure that everybody has the chance to input. I also have a fortnightly catch-up with the Head, which could be about safeguarding issues, a school trip that’s gone well or something that she needs approval from the governors. Governors are also there as an alternative point of contact for parents. 

Rebecca: My role as a Co-opted Governor is to read the data and information packs that the SLT provides each month, which include everything from attendance and attainment statistics to safeguarding issues, budgets and anything noteworthy that’s happened in the school. We then ask questions to ensure the headteacher and SLT have thought about different options and that they know how they will monitor progress. We push them to think about all the decisions they’re making and give them advice. We’re also a sounding board for anything that arises in the school, which could be anything to do with the staff, pupils, parents and guardians or building and maintenance.

Andrew: The responsibilities of a school governor are very nuanced, because every time you look upon the student body, you realise you are personally accountable for the life chances of all these young people. We have to scrutinise the tracking data and the performance of the students, but also have to scrutinise resource allocations to ensure we’re spending against the right priorities. Ultimately, the role of a governor is about the infrastructure and fabric of the school. School governors are responsible for resource decisions, policies, attainment, and physical safety of the students. There’ll be a subcommittee that looks at achievements, standards, behaviour, exclusion, remuneration, premises etc. – but we are all accountable in one way or another.

Dan: Governing bodies exist to provide both strategic steer and accountability to schools over the educational performance of its pupils and the way in which its budgets of public money are spent. We do this by analysing performance data, evaluating action plans and asking school leaders challenging questions. A good governing body should be made up of different people from across a local community so that scrutiny can come from a variety of perspectives. Having a governing body also provides schools with an opportunity to draw from knowledge and expertise from different sectors and industries in shaping school and MAT policies. 

What makes a good school governor?

Beth: Curiosity and integrity. There’s a tension in the role of governor because you’re setting the direction for the school, but you’re not making the everyday decisions. You are there to set a vision and make sure standards are high. To do that, you need to ask lots of questions and genuinely want to know the answers. As for integrity, you need to be able to ask tricky and important questions while also being able to understand the difference between your role as a parent or local businessperson and your role as a governor. 

Rebecca: To be a governor, you don’t necessarily need to have prior experience in schools or education, but you need to be well-informed on what makes a good school and what Ofsted considers to be “Good” and “Outstanding”. It also takes someone who can listen carefully, ask good questions, and not be afraid to challenge the Headteacher, whilst being supportive. You’re not there to oppose, you’re there to help and advise. I also think it’s helpful to have people that have worked in diverse roles to bring different experiences and viewpoints into the board; for example on our board we have a policewoman, a lawyer and I’m a marketer.

What do you love about being a governor and what is more challenging?

Beth: I love seeing the impact that the school has on the students. Working in EdTech, we are all here ultimately for the same reason: the students. Being a governor, I feel a much greater connection to that. The challenging side to the role is that sometimes there are problems that we as governors can’t solve – sometimes you can only sympathise. I find that quite hard as a solution-driven person. 

Rebecca: I love the feeling that I’m helping young people get the best start in life. There are a lot of refugees and Pupil Premium pupils in our school and it’s an important opportunity to help give them the tools and support to become whoever they want to be. Something I find more challenging is being able to really question and help with decisions the school needs to make, especially when it’s with a situation that’s more nuanced. When meetings move back to being in-person I think this will allow conversations to flow more easily. 

Andrew: I feel that education has been good to me, having provided me with a career, and many wonderful opportunities in this country and abroad. So it sounds a bit passe, but it really is an opportunity to give something back. My own education was quite poor in many respects, and so the opportunity to ensure that children don’t have to overcome the obstacles that I did, makes me feel as though I’m adding value. 

Dan: For me, being a trustee provides me with a great way to continue to have direct involvement in education. Our decision-making shapes the policies that influence the way in which people work within the schools. Having been a teacher, I know how hard-working people in schools are and how tough a job it can be at times, so I like to think that I can be a voice for teacher and staff wellbeing on the board. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made and one of the hardest parts of the job for me is getting involved in official disciplinary procedures for staff members or exclusion panels for students and having to weigh up what the right thing to do is in each situation. 

Does having a good MIS help the role of school governors?

Beth: I actually witnessed my school move from SIMS to Arbor. Now, the data is so much easier to interpret, especially with the Assessment data out of Arbor, especially for those who are less confident in this area. 

Andrew: Having a good MIS is essential to effective governance. I need to be able to see that the decisions we endorse genuinely add value to the learning journey. We’ve always been given high-quality information, but the issue was that it took a long time to get to us because it had to be manually number-crunched, so sometimes the data was half a term behind our meeting sequence. 

Dan: To be effective in challenging a school or MAT’s performance, it is necessary to have current data available that can be interrogated easily. However, in my experience as a governor, the MIS has often held things back. I’m often presented with quite two-dimensional and sometimes out-of-date data that merely reflects a snapshot in time – like a statistical average for Pupil Premium attainment. Without an MIS that allows you to do so, it’s impossible to actually explore the variables that might be driving the statistics presented. Arbor helps governing bodies actually drill down into this information to a much greater depth and makes it far easier to collate across multiple schools. Take Custom Report Writer, for example, which can be live fed into Google or Power BI, giving trustees or governors a live dashboard of current data. They can look at this any time, easily drill down and truly investigate the information.

What do students have to say?

Beth asked one of the children in a Reception class what they thought the Governing Board does at the school. This is what they said:

“Who is that? We don’t know what that means. Is it just a person or a box or is it you? Or are you talking about our board or your board? There’s two boards in here.”

Interested in becoming a school governor?

Apply online at Governors for Schools and they’ll match your skills to a local school in need. Find out more about the role here.

At Arbor, we’re on a mission to transform the way schools work for the better, which is why we think it’s key that so many of our team have previously worked in and continue to support schools. 

You can find more about our story and mission here, or keep up with us on Twitter and LinkedIn to find out more about how we are having an impact on education.