Education is simply too important to be left in the hands of volunteers as their commitment is sanctioned purely by the extent of their own goodwill

Of all the proposals to reform school governance the one that attracts the most ire is the idea that governors should be paid. It undermines the principle of volunteering that has served our schools well say some. It blurs the distinction between managers and non-execs say others. It will attract the wrong, money-grubbing sort say yet more.

Good intentions are no substitute for impartial scrutiny

As a chair of governors and a volunteer I have to say, and those who know me best would certainly agree, that I’m not sure the current system is attracting the right sort. Even when it does, I’m certain that many governing bodies are not best placed to handle the convulsions wracking education.

Building Better Boards, the report into governance published by Neil Carmichael and Edward Wild this week, to which I and Libby Nicholas contributed, makes the case for fundamental reform. Time limits on service, smaller boards, better skilled governors, more proactive recruitment, are some of its recommendations. None of those is particularly controversial. But the suggestion that schools should consider remuneration for governors, especially when money is tight, strikes many as terribly inappropriate.

I think they are wrong. Governors should be paid. It is not merely desirable, it’s essential. Not because money would necessarily attract better candidates but because it would help to formalise a relationship that is far too fuzzy. If remuneration helps to undermine the voluntary principle on which school governance is based, so much the better.

Education is simply too important to be left in the hands of volunteers. Good intentions are no substitute for impartial scrutiny. Well-meaning amateurs are not best placed at a time of rapid change to hold school leaders to account. Governors may not be the sherry-swilling, tombola-loving caricatures painted by Michael Gove, but I suspect many struggle to fulfil their commitments well. Education is too complex and the country’s expectations are too great to be left to the tender but frequently misplaced mercies of volunteers.

Yes, some have the necessary skills. Yes, many could be trained in the necessary skills. Yet the fundamental flaw remains: because volunteer governors are bestowing a favour by giving their time freely it is extremely hard to hold them to account. It is difficult to get all of them to turn up to meetings. It is asking a lot to expect them to keep up with relevant policy changes. It is fanciful to ask them to park their personal agendas at the school gate. It is unreasonable to insist that they take time off work to be on disciplinary panels.

Ultimately, a school has no right to expect too much because a volunteer’s responsibilities are limited by their willingness to serve regardless of what it says in the governors’ handbook. Volunteers are, to all intents and purposes, unaccountable because their commitment is purely sanctioned by the extent of their own goodwill.

Thanks to the selfless work of volunteers, underperforming governing bodies can be excused with a shrug. After all, what can anyone reasonably expect? Thanks to the unpaid commitment of parent governors it becomes difficult to point out that what may be right for their child isn’t necessarily the solution for everyone else’s. Thanks to the unsalaried but partisan opinions of local authority governors it’s not always clear if they are acting in the best interests of the school or of their party. Thanks to the munificent notion that a governing body must represent stakeholders first and hold the executive to account second bad practice escapes scrutiny.

Governorship has a crucial role. But its voluntary nature is more hindrance than help. We cannot expect our school system to “self-improve” if its overseers are themselves amateurish and unreformed. The Home Guard is recalled with affection. But there is a reason why Churchill did not rely on it to liberate occupied Europe.

Governors should be paid not because they necessarily deserve it. They should be paid because it allows schools and the taxpayer to hold them properly to account. Schools have a surfeit of do-gooders. What they lack is detached, accountable, professional oversight. It really is time to retire us volunteers.

Gerard Kelly is former editor of the Times Educational Supplement and director of GKP, a communications consultancy specialising in education. The views expressed are his alone