There might be a huge surplus of volunteers in London, but rural communities never have enough potential governors, explains Judith Hicks

Over a quarter of a million volunteers across England give up their free time to provide strategic leadership at state-funded schools – but this figure is falling, heaping pressure onto serving school governors and trustees.

This time last year, there were around 300,000 volunteers in this vital role but governing board sizes are shrinking with far fewer volunteers available. But is this officially a crisis in recruitment?

Many factors are at play here: recruitment challenges differ by phase, school type, community served and, significantly, geographical factors.

As you might expect, in greater London there is a surplus of several thousand volunteers. This is a recruitment challenge of a different kind: it is important that where there are vacancies, these volunteers are snapped up before they look elsewhere for other opportunities.

The smaller the board is, the more difficult it is to recruit

The recruitment landscape is very different in the rest of the country. We hear repeatedly that – particularly in rural and coastal schools – governing boards find it very hard to find volunteers compared with their urban counterparts.

In the west Midlands, south-west and the east of England especially, around a third of governing boards have two or more vacancies. We also know that the smaller the board is, the more difficult it is to recruit, perhaps this is because there’s a greater pressure to fill empty spaces.

Volunteers are difficult to attract in these communities for several reasons. One is the type of employer and the skills of the employees – larger employers are often better able to support their staff to govern, and the types of employment may adversely influence people’s willingness or confidence to volunteer.

Some of our coastal communities experience higher levels of deprivation and disadvantage. This can create a lack of aspiration and motivation to give something back to a school system that people perhaps do not feel benefitted them. Schools in deprived areas are also more likely to have joined a multi-academy trust where parents and the community can feel disconnected from the school; this reduces the community engagement that is often the trigger for people to volunteer.

Aside from work and family commitments, the most common factor cited as a barrier to volunteering is the lack of awareness. Governing boards must therefore explore all channels to attract volunteers, and beyond the school’s own network can leverage social media, local press and online recruitment platforms like Inspiring Governance.

Looking beyond the network of the governing board and school staff is essential as this approach narrows the demographic of candidates and makes the governing board more susceptible to group think. When talking about the role, boards should highlight the opportunity for skills development alongside the idea of giving something back to the community.

The perception that knowledge of the education system is a perquisite is also a barrier to participation. It is important to make clear that this isn’t the case, and moreover that there is training and support available to help volunteers be confident in their role – locally, in e-learning and in resources provided by organisations like NGA.

It may also be possible to encourage volunteers to serve as an associate member for a fixed term to deliver a specific role or project and if they enjoy the experience, join the governing board. Employing some of these approaches should help governing boards to expand the volunteers willing to take on the role.

Governing boards need to be able to deliver strong governance, so what will happen if we can’t plug this gap? Too small a governing board limits the range of skills, experience and knowledge around the table. On a practical level, at meetings boards risk not being quorate, leaving them unable to fulfil their decision-making role. Simply, it is an unnecessary distraction.

Judith Hicks is Head of the National Governance Association’s Inspiring Governance programme, which connects skilled volunteers interested in serving as governors and trustees with schools in England.