Unpaid volunteers, school governors are now often giving up as many 20 full days a year to make sure children get the best chances, writes Emma Knights

Governors do not volunteer for plaudits or public acclaim. For them, their reward is helping ensure that children in their community get a good education. However it is not an easy role, particularly at the moment.

Many of the education issues currently in the public eye – difficulties in balancing the budget, stretched provision for children with special education needs, the rapid pace of change to curriculum and assessment, the subsequent workload burden on teachers and a mounting recruitment crisis – end up on the agenda of the average school governing board.

We are at the end of volunteers’ week, held every year from June 1 to 7 to celebrate the contribution of time freely given by citizens across the UK, the glue of our civil society.

Here in England there are quarter of a million volunteers governing state schools, doing their part to make sure our children all have real opportunities to flourish. This is a huge number of people and a huge number of hours donated, but it’s all going towards one of the least known and recognised voluntary roles.

All of the National Governance Association’s (NGA) contact with governors and trustees confirms the same thing: they are very much concerned for the welfare of their schools’ employees, and conscious of the workload their staff are burdened with.

For some years now, the NGA has been encouraging governing boards to ask questions to monitor workload and ensure the decisions they make do not lead to increasing hours.

This is not simple at a time when costs of running a school are increasing at a much higher rate than resources, but it is imperative if we are to maintain a healthy culture and retain our workforce.

We are pleased the secretary of state has decided to put the issue of staff workload at the top of his agenda too.

But who’s looking out for the welfare and workload of those who govern? We know many governors and trustees, particularly those who chair a governing board, are giving more than 20 days a year. Our most recent case studies of multi academy trusts show the time commitment can be even larger as a trust grows. Two years ago we carried out some research on how chairs use their time and we plan to return to this topic next term. There are ways of making the role more doable using distributive leadership, such as delegating fully or even sharing the chair. But even so, we are asking a lot of our volunteers.

We shared our findings with the Department for Education and this Saturday we are pleased to be welcoming the education secretary to address the NGA’s summer conference. Since its 2010 white paper, the government has been saying it intends to raise the profile and status of school governance; we hope that Damian Hinds may have more to say on this at the weekend.

Being part of the school community is what keeps people governing, but we can’t risk making the role one that only those who are not in full time employment have the time to commit. Much effort is being made to spread the word that we need more volunteers, especially outside London. The NGA is part of the Inspiring Governance support service, but finding people to volunteer is not easy.

The word “overlooked” is often applied to school governing, which is why I am so pleased that today the general secretaries of the two leadership associations – Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders, and Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Headteachers – have joined me to express their appreciation of the huge amount of time, skills, care and attention governors and trustees give to support and challenge school leaders in the interests of children.

Emma Knights is Chief executive of the National Governance Association