‘It’s essential that governors are paid for their work’

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

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  1. Kevin Quigley

    Interesting point of view but not one I agree with. Whilst it would be nice to put in a claim for all the time I spend in school and away from my business it is not why I or most governors do the job. I don’t see any evidence that paying people gives you any more control. Being a governor would be a part time post at best, and even if you did allocate, say, 20 hrs a month paid, do you really think most working governors would be influenced by that?

    If you then get into offering commercial rates for governors coming from professional backgrounds, or paying employers charge out rates for their staff to attend meetings, what impact does this have on budgets? Does having 7-13 individuals attending meetings really offer good value for money when measured in pupil outcome terms (compared to, say, employing an extra floating teacher or buying in expertise in the classroom).

    Part of the ‘power’ we have is that we can choose to walk away at any time. I have always said that if I ever felt I was not able to influence and advise there is no point in my being there. Being paid merely makes it more likely that you retain governors who are just there for a bit of pocket money.

    A lot of the rhetoric by Government and MAT governors is about holding schools to task like we are waving a big stick and sitting in the corner of a classroom marking teachers, or picking school data to shreds because something has dropped by 0.1%. Governors should be there to look at overall strategy and trends, to offer particular expertise that may not be available in the school, to participate in school life and to help teachers and headteachers do the jobs THEY are paid to do.

    Recently, as we have had to, we have looked at academy conversion with other schools (as you must now join or set up as a multi academy trust now). In that context, with a trust level board overseeing all schools I can see the need for paid people. But that is a different argument entirely and in my opinion these trust level people are not governors but working managers. Perhaps the reason many MATs fail to deliver on promises is that their boards are volunteers who maybe don’t have the skills to deliver? Like I said, that is a different argument!

  2. I’m not necessarily against paying governors in principle, but Gerard Kelly is wrong to equate voluntarism with amateurism and naïve ‘do-gooding’. You only have to look across to the charity sector to see highly successful, businesslike charities operating on a scale similar to and larger than many schools, to see that he is wrong. They are run by top quality, professional-standard, voluntary boards. I know because mine (The Churches Conservation Trust) is one of them.

    We have skilled, responsible, committed trustees from all walks of life who, without payment, provide high levels of expertise and hold the executive to account year in year out. No underperforming here: a properly run charity board – voluntary or not – is subject to regular evaluation, enforced codes of conduct and delivers high quality governance and scrutiny in the interests of the charity and its beneficiaries.

    Governing bodies of schools don’t always match up, but that’s not because they’re amateur. Yes to smaller, more skills-based, more strategic governing bodies. Yes to accountability and being required to act in the interests of the school not the stakeholder group from which the individual governor comes. No to blurring the clear distinction between a voluntary, strategic, accountable governing body and the paid executive to which it must look to deliver.

    I’m chair of governors at Stoke Newington School and Sixth Form in London. We’ve just reconstituted to a smaller, more skills-based team and we have some great governors with skills in finance, communications, education policy, special needs… . I’m not saying that being paid wouldn’t be nice: it might even free me up to give a bit more time (would that be a good thing or might it encourage me to get a bit too operational?). But being paid wouldn’t make any difference to how professionally or otherwise I do the job.

  3. Donna Wilks

    I don’t necessarily think that it would be a bad thing to pay governors but I would worry that the balance of power would shift so that governors’ loyalty would be to whoever pays their wages. As a volunteer I like to think that my views are my own. I am not beholden to a pay master and I don’t have to worry about upsetting an employer if my opinion differs from that of the party line. If I were employed by someone, be it the school, LA, academy trust etc would I be under pressure to, for example, vote in a particular way on key decisions?