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The struggle to recruit governors

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Why are governing bodies finding themselves with more vacant posts? Earlier this year the BBC reported that one in every 10 governor posts across the country are vacant. The problem is more acute in particular localities. In April, for example, Cumbria County Council appealed for volunteers to come forward after the number rose to 111 vacancies in its South Lakes area alone.

It’s no secret that governing bodies find recruiting other governors a perennially challenging task. The NGA’s state of school governing survey, released in April and based on the responses of 8,000 governors, found that just under 70% of governors say their governing body finds governor recruitment difficult. It revealed that more than half of chairs continue to spend a “significant” amount of time on recruitment. The survey also showed that governing bodies of struggling schools in disadvantaged areas find it harder to recruit than high performing schools in better off areas.

The data tells pretty much the same story as a previous survey from 2008. This is despite reforms giving governing bodies greater freedom over making governor appointments based on skills, rather than having to ensure stakeholder representation. In fact, one effect of the government’s emphasis on co-opting governors for their skills rather than their constituency has been that governing bodies need to think more about how they’re recruiting, and what they’re recruiting for. This takes time and hard work. The recruitment process now stretches out to include preliminary skills audits, targeting of particular individuals, wide advertising campaigns, and the assessment and/or interviewing of candidates.

Holding elections for parent and staff governors is no less significant a task. With the new statutory requirement to ensure that elections to the governing body are “informed” – i.e. that those voting are aware of the skills the governing body needs, as well as those that candidates possess – it’s also a task that will continue to grow in size. The temptation might be for governing bodies to leave their vacancies unfilled. However, this just leaves a bigger job further down the line: having fewer governors will serve to make the task even harder.

There’s a wider issue, though, and that’s the appeal of the role in the first place. 89% of respondents to the NGA’s survey said that they feel there is a lack of community interest in becoming a governor. Governors also reported reluctance on the part of members of school staff, who may be put off by the thought of challenging the senior leadership team, and juggling the role with the pressures of teaching.

Many suitable individuals are simply unaware of what school governance involves, the benefits of being a governor and how to go about applying. The Inspiring Governors Alliance, launched earlier this year, is doing admirable work helping to spread the message about governance to those who may not have given it a second thought.

But the NGA’s state of governing report also shows that governing bodies are disproportionately older and whiter than the communities they serve. So there's a risk that some potential candidates might feel that school governance just isn’t for them. On top of this, some are being put off school governance after hearing from other governors about negative experiences, or sometimes after giving it a go themselves. Pessimistic tales abound of everlasting committee meetings, excessive paperwork, Ofsted and ineffective chairing. Certain former education secretaries haven't helped, either. Some governors end up packing it all in before the end of their term of office, or refusing re-appointment: the struggle to retain governors is only adding to the high number of vacancies.

SGOSS: Governors for Schools

So what can be done to help? SGOSS: Governors for Schools is one of the organisations making the biggest difference. The charity matches skilled individuals with governing bodies, easing the recruitment burden and helping to introduce a new dynamism into school governing bodies. The charity has helped to place more than 16,000 school governors over the past 12 years, helping to ensure that governing body vacancies are filled with informed, skilled and diverse volunteers who are fully supported by employers.

Janet Scott, Interim Chief Executive of SGOSS told me that the organisation places more individuals from the financial and legal professions than any other – the skills schools say they need the most – and is also successful in placing younger governors, helping to dispel the notion that school governance is for retirees. While research from a few years ago found that only 8% of governors were under 40 years old and a majority were retired, the average age of the governors that SGOSS places is 41, falling to 36 in London. It’s helping to show school governance in a new light.

To get behind the great work that the charity is doing, from this autumn we will be offering those governing bodies which obtain a governor through SGOSS six months free membership of The Key for School Governors. We want to support newly-placed governors to hit the ground running, regardless of how familiar they are with governance and the education system. And we want to help ensure governing bodies hold on to their talent by bringing together the information and ideas governors need to function effectively. 5 out of 6 schools are yet to place a governor through SGOSS: Governors for Schools, so the more we can do to promote this vital service, the better.

What else?

However, despite sterling work, SGOSS by itself can’t fill the high number of vacancies. Further, radical steps need to be taken to boost the functioning and profile of school governance.

The government would argue, I suppose, that individual governing bodies have the freedom to take bold decisions to create dynamic, effective and complete governing bodies. To a certain extent that’s true. I’m sure we’ll see more governing bodies adopt different meeting patterns, downsize, federate or join a chain to help ensure there is a full suite of committed individuals available.

But as a country, how can we reaffirm school governance as a central part of our educational and political system? Well, we need stronger action on guaranteeing leave for working age governors, perhaps at the same time as imposing limits on the length of governing body meetings. Governor training should focus not just on the duties of governing bodies but on prioritising business and getting through it effectively (getting the school leadership team involved in this would be one way of making sure everyone is on the same page). And we also need to make governance easier. At The Key we have a role in providing materials and tools to support governors to fulfill their responsibilities, so they don't need to re-invent the wheel every time.

It’s controversial, but we should also revisit the issue of financial recompense for those individuals and employers who support school governance, particularly where governing bodies are struggling to recruit. What’s clear to me is that if we want governors to continue as a cornerstone of our education system, we need to take radical steps to value and hold on to them.

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