The team at Hub4Leaders HQ know Nicki in her capacity as our Governance Lead, reminding us all of the importance of governance within the education system, and for the resources she creates for TheSchoolBus site.
What the team don’t get to see is Nicki in her role as a governor herself. Nicki is a committed and motivated volunteer, so as part of Volunteers Week 2019, our team came up with a series of questions to find out more about her role as a governor. Our members also sent in questions for Nicki to answer.
Nicki is currently chair of governors for a large junior school in Gloucestershire and also volunteers as a local leader of governance, supporting other governors across Gloucestershire.
Here are the questions and Nicki’s answers.
Q: Have you ever been placed in a situation where you felt what was being asked went beyond your call of duty as a volunteer? If so, how did you deal with it?
A: Not personally, but I think that my experience enables me to be clear and confident in what my role as a governor is and isn’t. I know some governors who have been put in this position and I always advise them to return to the core functions of governance and check if what they are being asked meets those responsibilities. If it doesn’t, the core functions can provide a sound basis to start a conversation about why what is being asked is not part of governors’ roles. As volunteers we are sometimes not very good at saying ‘no, that’s not my role’ because we want to be helpful, but we must be clear about where our responsibilities lie. It is equally important to educate school staff and the parent community on the role of governors so that everyone’s expectations are clear and appropriate.
Q: As a chair of a governing board, how would you go about settling disputes between governors so that you can make important decisions without facing a power struggle or threats of resignation from the board?
A: I don’t believe that people volunteer primarily to cause problems or to be difficult. When issues do occur, it is usually because of a lack of clarity in their understanding of their role, which may have arisen for many different reasons.
A robust, good-quality induction is vital for new governors – whether they have governed before or not – it is important that the board they are joining sets its expectations of the role.
Ongoing, supportive conversations are also important; governors meet on a very irregular basis so having someone to talk to in-between meetings to receive support and guidance is important in preventing these situations.
If there was a dispute, I would have an honest conversation to see how we could resolve the issue – if either governor’s behaviour was inappropriate, I would refer back to the governance code of conduct they would have signed at the beginning of the academic year.
Q: How do you keep governors motivated to continue with their role when they begin having doubts during their term?
A: Ultimately, it is important to remember that governors are all volunteers who give a huge amount of time and energy to their roles. I would want to understand what those doubts are and how myself or other governors can support them to resolve those. If someone is having doubts about continuing in the role, sometimes the fairest and kindest thing to do is to support them to walk away without any feelings of guilt.
I try to motivate all governors to enjoy the role by keeping our focus firmly on the children in the school, making sure meeting time and monitoring is purposeful and time-efficient, and encouraging governors to spend time in school – there is nothing more motivating than seeing the school in action and children enjoying their learning.
Q: Do you find it difficult juggling a family and your work as a governor?
A: It can become a consuming role if you allow it to be. Last year, I was chair in two schools, and that alongside family life and working become too much for me. I have got better at utilising the skills of the whole board and sharing the workload – I am not a better chair if I do everything myself. Organisational skills are key, as are good communication skills. I have learnt to plan my governance work into my weekly planning which helps with the juggling.
My family understand that I love being a governor and fully support me in my volunteering. I have made sure they understand why I do it and what it gives me personally and professionally. I consider it important to show my children the value and importance of volunteering.
Q: Please can you explain how and why you got into governance?
A: I first started volunteering as a governor when my children started primary school. I wanted to be involved in supporting the school but was fairly shy and didn’t think I was sociable enough to join the PTA! When the opportunity for becoming a parent governor came up, I could see that my management and nursing career had provided me with lots of skills the governing board were looking for. I was duly elected but spent the first year feeling very overwhelmed and not saying very much at all!
Q: Can you offer any advice for someone who is looking at getting into governance, but finds the task of gaining so much knowledge daunting?
A: Firstly, and importantly, remember governance is a collective responsibility – you do not need to know everything. Your governance journey will be a learning curve and what is important at the beginning is that you understand what information you need, when you will need it and how you need to use it to prepare for a meeting. Being provided with a buddy or mentor during your induction will help to prioritise information.
At the start of your governance journey, aim to build your confidence in the skill of professional curiosity, improve your knowledge by reading paperwork, prepare thoroughly for meetings, and be ready to ask questions – this will help your knowledge to grow.
Q: What do you think of the current state of education (e.g. funding restrictions and retention/recruitment problems) and how does this affect your work as a governor?
A: There will always be challenges within the education system, it is our role to adapt to these changes armed with as much knowledge and expertise on the board as possible. The current funding situation concerns me most because I see the real impact of poorly funded schools – the losers are our brilliant teachers and the children in our schools. As a governor, it means making some really challenging decisions, looking outside of school and the local area for solutions and making sure we stay focussed on the right things for the right reasons.
Q: How do you find being a governor enhances your work life and personal life? How is it rewarding for you?
A: In so many ways! I work from home, which can be isolating and some weeks I only see my family. Being part of a governing board enables me to work within a team of brilliant people, all of whom I constantly learn something from. I have made some valued friendships through governance and love being part of a wider governance network. I get to put into practice skills from my previous leadership roles that I don’t use in my day job, so that is useful for me professionally.
I have benefited from working alongside some brilliant and inspiring headteachers and leaders, who have influenced me as a leader and as a governance professional.
The biggest reward is having the opportunity to be involved in schools – there is nothing more joyful than seeing young people engaged in purposeful, creative and exciting learning. I would make a rubbish teacher, but governance gives me the opportunity to be involved in schools in a way I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
Q: Do you find there is a lot of support available for governors, which is appropriate for them as a volunteer?
A: I think there are inconsistencies in the support governors receive. If governors are proactive then there is support out there, social media has really helped this but we are at risk of a voluntary support system for the largest group of volunteers in the country – we should commit to investing more in those who are giving so much support to our schools .
Governors should see the value and worth of seeking support, many do not like to ask schools to pay for training or membership services that may support them in their roles, but they should place enough value on their own support and CPD to do this.
Q: What are three things you would recommend to someone considering becoming a governor?
- Visit the school where you would like to govern first, come away and write a list of questions based on your visit – asking questions based on information you receive will be key to the role.
- Make sure you fully understand the time commitment involved. This will be more than the number of meetings per year – preparation, monitoring visits and keeping up-to-date are also important to factor in.
- Speak to some other governors who are already volunteering and ask them lots of questions about the role, so you feel fully informed to decide if this is the right role for you.
Q: How has governance changed over your time as a governor? Has the support with the change been sufficient?
A: The core responsibilities haven’t changed but education never stands still, and governors have a personal responsibility to keep up-to-date and informed – rather than relying on being fed information from the SLT.
In my time we have seen levels be removed, two changes to the Ofsted framework, a new GSCE grading system, the introduction of EHC plans, the GDPR, and updates to ‘Keeping children safe in education’, the ‘Governance handbook’, and the ‘Academies financial handbook’ every year. That is a lot for governors to be aware of and keep on top of, and this takes teamwork.
Q: What in your experience is the biggest challenge of taking up a volunteering role?
A: Hands down, responding to complaints and recruiting a headteacher – which I have done twice now. Responding to complaints is such an important but time-consuming role. It takes kindness, organisation and sensitivity and it is important to get right for all parties involved. Recruiting a headteacher is probably the most important job governors will do – done well, it takes a lot of time, head space and commitment to the process. The decision governors make can have a huge impact on the school community.
Q: How do you stay motivated to do something that is on top of your existing workload and is voluntary? Does it ever fall to the bottom of the pile?
A: The role and the reason for doing it motivate me. If anything falls to the bottom of the pile, it’s usually me but I have got better this year at balance. I am lucky to have such a supportive husband and family, who enable me to juggle everything I have to.
Q: How much do you need to know about education to become a governor?
A: Personally, I think that is something you can learn. I had no knowledge of the education system, but I had the skills and motivation to learn and immerse myself into a new sector. The confidence to ask questions is more important, the rest will come with time.
Having non-educators on the board can bring a fresh perspective, a different focus of question and challenge, and new ideas, which are all really important aspects of governance.
Q: How much time do you need to dedicate to understanding the wider responsibilities of being a governor than simply attending meetings, e.g. interpreting statistics, going on courses?
A: A good question and important consideration. Governance is so much more than five to six full governing board (FGB) meetings per year. I am lucky to have access to TheSchoolBus to keep up-to-date which helps me enormously – it’s not just governance I need to keep up-to-date with, but also wider sector issues. I attend LA headteacher and chair briefings on a termly basis, meet regularly with the headteacher and attend one or two conferences a year. I am, however, reading almost daily about governance and education on social media – I think I would even if it wasn’t the day job.
Q: How much of a difference can you really make as a governor? Are you actually able to influence anything?
A: A huge amount. Recruiting the leader of the school, supporting the recruitment and development of the board to ensure they are effective, bringing an external point of view and fresh eyes on tired and ineffective systems and ways of working, and monitoring safeguarding and the curriculum – all have the potential to have great impact. Governors need confidence in their own ability and knowledge to govern, they also need to be committed to working to develop positive and successful working relationships with senior leaders. When things are not going well, governors need to be able to identify this and have the strength and commitment to challenge that and work to support improvements – or remove barriers to improvements.
Q: How do you fit volunteering as a governor into your schedule and maintain a healthy work-life balance at the same time?
A: I don’t do much housework and rarely cook the tea! Planning is essential, as is having a supportive employer who enables me to use my time flexibly if needed and understands my role. Learning to say ‘no’ and using the skills of my governance colleagues has been helpful in managing my own wellbeing. We also have an amazing clerk who I could not do the role without – she makes me a better governor and helps me more than she realises.
Q: What is the biggest driver that makes you volunteer your time to be a governor?
A: People – the amazing school staff who constantly inspire me, my governance colleagues and the brilliant children in our school.
Q: Can you clarify about the recording of section 128 checks in all schools?
A: Section 128 checks apply to all schools and should be undertaken for anyone involved in the management of schools, including maintained school governors. I would recommend recording these checks on the school’s SCR.
Q: Can all governors be given enhanced DBS checks with further checks to allow regulated activity possibilities?
A: All maintained school governors, academy trustees, members and local governors are required to undergo an enhanced DBS check. An additional barred list check is only required if, in addition to their governance activity, a person is involved with a regulated activity – which most governors would not be if maintaining a strategic role.
When completing a DBS check, the person completing the form is asked to confirm if the person being checked will engage in a regulated activity. You would need to be sure the governor would meet the criteria for a regulated activity, more than three times in 30 days. I would recommend you access the DBS checking tool for clarification on which DBS check is right for your governors.
Q: When a named safeguarding governor visits the school, what areas should they pay attention to?
A: I recommend that governors have a schedule for safeguarding monitoring that spans the academic year. This may include regular monitoring to ensure the SCR is compliant, ensuring the child protection and safeguarding policy is being implemented, monitoring safer recruitment compliance, monitoring safeguarding training, and seeking pupil voice. We have created a Safeguarding Link Governor and Trustee Monitoring Visit Template which can be used to build an annual schedule for monitoring safeguarding.