The talk of the education world rightly focuses mostly on children and young people, on parents and on school and trust staff, the pressures they face and the work required of them. Yet, another cohort – one that quietly and tirelessly contributes to keeping the sector’s wheels turning – is feeling the strain.
The National Governance Association (NGA) has recently published a report that reveals a worrying trend. Too many governors and trustees are buckling under the weight of increasing workloads. Over one-quarter of volunteers and one-third of chairs are now considering throwing in the towel altogether.
Governing remains a unique and rewarding experience, one that offers an awful lot in terms of giving back an in opportunities to engage in strategic leadership with a profound purpose and meaning. More than that, the workload conversation should in no way detract from this workforce’s commitment to making a difference for children, which they do freely, generously and without much (if any) recognition. Quite the opposite.
The scale of the pressures governors and trustees have reached a worrying new high. As part of our research for this new report, Taking Stock of Governance Workload, we heard from over 2,500 volunteers – a turning point for a group who are notoriously shy and a sign in itself of the level of feeling about the expectations of the role, wider system pressures and the emotional toll the job.
Emotional toll and governance don’t often feature in the same sentence. The image of the boardroom is frequently misrepresented by vastly different extremes: the village hall-esque committee sipping tea and the corporate suits with their own agenda. Both are far from the truth and detract from a huge societal contribution which, if we were to monetise, would make treasury eyes water.
Events of the past few years have exacerbated volunteer workload, and relying on unpaid goodwill has limitations. The workload and wellbeing of volunteers must be considered and respected if we are to retain a sustainable model of governance. So what are the answers?
Time to debate pay
NGA is committing to opening a sector-wide debate on remuneration given evidence of shifting opinions. This might be an answer, but evidence of its impact is lacking.
Setting aside that the sector can’t afford to make what could prove to be an expensive decision, there are legitimate concerns it would remove one of the sector’s prize possessions: service driven by an authentic, philanthropic motivation and civic contribution. NGA is committed to this voluntary ethos. We’re not advocating for payment, but we are a listening organisation.
Review the remit
NGA has resisted drawing too much attention to governance workload since the pandemic. We did so in the spirit of doing what the governing community wanted: to concentrate on support for exhausted schools leaders and staff.
But the ‘new normal’ has not eased burdens, and the issue is now speaking more and more for itself. Indeed, every corner of the sector is increasingly concerned.
The report shows that board practice itself can be part of the problem. But let’s be clear: improving board practice is not the whole solution. Systemic support and a national review of boards’ remit are vital at this stage, and long overdue.
Review the exclusion process
But if there is very little boards can do less of to lessen workload, there is one very clear change the government can make: exclusion panels (which governors and trustees are asked to sit on more and more) are proving not only incredibly time-draining but also emotionally exhausting due to the matters discussed and the and the significant ramifications of the decisions taken.
Being pitted against school leaders in cases where they are minded to reinstate a pupil also does nothing to build a culture of support and trusted challenge. Instead, it creates long-term tensions that can be detrimental to good governance.
Our alternative, which must be considered urgently, is to replace exclusion review panels in their current form with independent and paid-for panels.
We urgently need the school and trust governance sustainability discussion to take off within the wider sector. The stability of the school system and strength of pupil outcomes depend on supporting this unseen and unsung workforce, and we hope this report lights the touch paper on their behalf.