School governors often spend more time governing than trustees in many other charities. Are staffing issues to blame?

This is Trustees’ Week, but I imagine almost all academy trustees will be blissfully unaware of it. That’s entirely understandable; as school improvement is prioritised for volunteers with limited time. It is a shame that school governance tends to separate itself from the rest of the charity sector, when the experience is so rich.

So bringing news and good practice from other sectors is one of the roles the National Governors’ Association (NGA) plays as the membership organisation for school governors and academy trustees. There is much to learn from other governance practitioners. I was tempted to use the word “professionals”, but hesitated as this is so often misconstrued. People hear how the powers that be want to “professionalise” governance and too often think that means it will be paid, but it doesn’t. Volunteers are perfectly able to carry out the role in a professional, business-like manner; and every survey of governors shows that we are happy to continue unpaid. Commitment is arguably the most important attribute of the volunteer, without which a governing board will fail.

That said, the time needed to govern well is a contentious issue. There is a rule of thumb in the charity sector that a trustee will spend the equivalent of 10 to 20 days a year governing, with a chair at the top end of that scale. Any more than that may mean a trustee has crossed the line from the “strategic” to “operational”. However, we know that many chairs of school governing boards spend significantly more time than this on their role. Clearly there will be bursts of activity – for example, when recruiting a headteacher, and when a school is in difficulty.

However, if a school is in difficulty then it might be that an Interim Executive Board (IEB) is a more appropriate group to govern a school – and the NGA does think IEB members should be paid. It is a different role – the clue is in the name – an executive board, not a non-executive role. Indeed most members of IEBs are educational professionals who are paid but often the one exception is the governance expert. This is iniquitous. So governors out there: stand up for yourselves and seek payment for serving on at IEB like those other professionals.

Chairs of school governing bodies often spend more than 20 days a year on their role

Here at GovernorHQ we have another hypothesis about why we school governors often spend more time governing than in many charities: we deal with so many staffing issues, ones that in more functional organisations are simply dealt with better by management at an earlier stage and do not end up reaching the board of trustees. NGA is on a mission to encourage governors to ask questions with the aim of improving human resources practice in schools.

Two of our most important NGA events are being held this week. One is an event alongside the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society to explore what we know about school governance and identify the gaps in our knowledge. The second is our annual conference, which provides a chance to take stock of where we are with the campaign to improve school governance. That campaign is directed primarily at governors and trustees, including headteachers. Between us, we have the knowledge and the flexibility to achieve this.

We have also been asking governing boards to consider governing a group of local schools. The concomitant reduction of governance duties at individual school level is more than offset by the benefits, most importantly improved outcomes for pupils.

However, governing groups of schools can be a profound change with not just the transferring of functions to one board over a number of schools, but possibly with some former overnance functions taken on by the executive management.

This is a model that does not raise eyebrows in the wider voluntary sector where a board of trustees might govern a huge multi-million organisation, but it is a fundamental shift for school governance where we are used to every school having a governing body. We will be debating this with governors and trustees at our events. We would love to hear your ideas too.

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Emma Knights is Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association