2023 in review

2023 in review: Exhaustion has reached the boardroom

2023 will go down as the year that the recruitment and retention crisis brought school governance itself to breaking point

2023 will go down as the year that the recruitment and retention crisis brought school governance itself to breaking point

21 Dec 2023, 5:00

This year brought so many significant governance challenges that it’s hard to know where to begin. The best thing may be to start at the end, with a crisis that is peaking as the year comes to a close. 

Breaking point

Governors and trustees make up the largest voluntary workforce in the UK. Sadly, a growing number are throwing in the towel and fewer are joining in the face of growing workload.

Recruitment and retention of governors and trustees first became a real challenge post-pandemic.  Covid caused colleagues to reflect on what mattered most to them and to prioritise their own wellbeing, perhaps in a way they hadn’t before. Simultaneously, increased demand on schools caused an increase in the workloads of those who remained. These trends have continued.

In November, the National Governance Association (NGA) published a report taking stock of governance workload. It found that over one-quarter of all governance volunteers and one-third of chairs are contemplating resigning, with time and pressure cited as the main drivers. This has been fueled by increased numbers of exclusions, a rise in the number and complexity of complaints, wider systemic challenges including funding pressures and staffing, and a growing expectation of schools to support families also suffering with mental health, poverty and more.

Addressing these challenges is not only time-consuming but emotionally and mentally exhausting. The commitment required of this volunteer workforce is reaching breaking point.

Strike and counter-strike

It’s not only governors who feel this way. In February, 54 per cent of schools were closed or partially closed due to industrial action. But of course, this only added to governor workloads. Headteachers are required to consult with their governing boards before deciding whether to close.  NGA provided guidance to governing boards, and the DFE updated theirs, but to many this felt like more to absorb in their increasingly challenging role.

Nor is it the end. In response to what was over 10 days of strikes, the government is now consulting on the introduction of minimum service levels in schools. Should it pass, it’s not clear that it’ll improve anything for heads of their governing bodies. And in the meantime, we may well see yet more disruption.  

SEND and AP improvement

Sadly, there is no indication of abatement in other pressures either.  During my recent tenure as chair of Greater Manchester’s children and adolescent mental health services commissioning committee, I witnessed the steep rise in referrals for children with diagnoses of autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

Here, at least, the SEND and AP improvement plan published in March is having some impact. In our region, we have seen an increase in the number of special schools, mainstream provision is reforming to adopt specialist approaches – and indeed so are governors and trustees. I have personally engaged in the oversight of one specialist secondary school, the transformation of two primaries from mainstream into mainstream/specialist and further expansion of resource provision elsewhere.

In truth, however, even all this great work is unlikely to be enough in the short term.

Estate of disrepair

And as if things weren’t challenging enough already, the start of the school year brought another crisis as RAAC brought the state of the education estate to national attention. A daily onslaught of direction and guidance reminiscent of the pandemic itself took over our email inboxes.

At best, governors and trustees were forced to undergo a stress-inducing comms onslaught while supporting school leaders to (re-)assess their schools. At worst, they have been cast right back to that pandemic peak of no-notice school closures – but with the added pressure of finding and setting up alternative accommodation quickly to limit the impact on already struggling families who, this time, are not furloughed or working from home.

I haven’t even mentioned what was meant to be a seminal piece of work from DfE this year: the regulatory and commissioning review published in March that was supposed to improve accountability for academies. Nor the fact that, in the wake of the death of Ruth Perry, Ofsted seemed to try to deflect responsibility for the headteacher’s failing mental health on Caversham’s governors.

Is it any wonder fewer feel they can be governors and look after themselves, let alone serve their children, schools and communities well?

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