Governor recruitment seems to be getting tougher and tougher. Al Kingsley considers why governance is a great role, the barriers that exist to recruitment, and how we might start to overcome them
So many amazing people in our society generously donate their time to “give something back”.
We certainly saw evidence of that at the height of the pandemic in 2020, with more than 10 million people across the UK reportedly stepping up to volunteer in roles such as working at food banks, delivering meals and medicines, making calls to combat lockdown loneliness, and generally doing what was needed to help their communities.
A clear need and a clarion call were all it took to mobilise that mass goodwill.
The search is on
However, recruiting volunteers to less visible or perceptibly urgent roles is more of a challenge and one that schools persistently experience with governor recruitment. Governors are all volunteers and their numbers have been in decline for some time now.
There is no doubt about it, being a governor is a big ask in terms of commitment – and doing it for free is an even bigger one. But those who do it say the rewards are substantial: knowing they have played a part in making education better for today’s children, helping schools save money, or seeing the ideas they have shared from outside of the education sector benefit staff and students – not to mention gaining new skills themselves from being a part of the governing board.
There are more than 18,000 governor vacancies across the UK (NGA, 2019). And according to the National Governance Association’s 2021 survey, 55.3% of schools say they struggle to recruit volunteers to their boards of governors (Henson et al, 2021) – and with an ever-increasing workload, it is not hard to see why.
Why do schools need governors?
Having a board of governors is a legal requirement and central to the leadership of every school and multi-academy trust. With the shift to academisation from the year 2000 onwards, the range of skills required to operate schools widened considerably. They suddenly had to manage aspects such as their own increasingly pressured budgets, tracking funding streams and ensuring financial accountability – perhaps not an entirely natural fit for senior leaders specialising in education.
That is why people with financial experience outside the education sector who can lend their knowledge to schools and MATs in a governor or trustee capacity are always highly sought after and appreciated.
But it is not just the financial experts who can help. Governors from all kinds of backgrounds work with the headteacher and senior leadership team to drive the strategic development of the school and raise standards of achievement.
They are often referred to as the school’s “critical friends”, supporting and, where appropriate, challenging the school’s leaders to help them ensure they make sound strategic decisions while retaining balance and accountability.
Barriers to recruitment
So why are schools struggling to recruit governors and trustees? There are many reasons, but perception plays a big part. I don’t think it is clear to would-be volunteers who work in other sectors that it is not necessary to have a deep knowledge of education.
It is actually often more useful to get perspectives from people who have not been acclimatised to the ways of the education system – and people with wide corporate experience can bring a wealth of ideas that can be shaped for use in schools and MATs with great success.
And therein lies the next barrier: the corporate sector does not know enough about the skills and experience that their staff could gain from being a volunteer school governor which could then be brought back and used for the benefit of a company.
What better way for employees who aspire to work at the top level to get strategic and leadership development experience than in a real-life setting of a school or MAT?
From organisation to recruitment, purchasing, forming policies and strategies, right through to edtech and students’ education, they would be collaborating with others, taking the lead, making decisions, examining evidence and ensuring accountability – all of which are skills that employers hold in high regard.
It is clear that staff interested in taking on governor posts as part of their professional development, with their employer’s full support, could pay off for both sides.
There is also the fact that the governor and trustee roles become heavier each year. With each recommendation, piece of guidance or directive from the government, implementation is down to the school’s governors and senior leadership team.
That is why, when advertising for volunteers to join a governing board, schools need to be upfront (however daunting it looks) about exactly what is involved: the time commitment, the amount of paperwork, and the expectations around training and meetings – alongside the skills they are specifically looking for – so there are no surprises later on. Communication is key.
It's worth it
The only thing worse than not being able to recruit great new governors and trustees is recruiting people who leave the role soon afterwards, either because it was not what they expected, or worst of all because, they didn’t feel they had an opportunity to contribute and add value.
In this respect, supporting new recruits from the start is critical, as there is a steep learning curve for them before they even attend their first meeting. Providing as much detail as possible and signposting them to the different sources of information to help them on their journey is the very least we can do.
But those generous volunteers who do tread the governor path find that it is such a rewarding way to contribute to the community and they gain great satisfaction from knowing they have played a part in making education better for the children who grow up there.
That is certainly something I have experienced from my two decades of involvement across infant, primary, secondary, all-through, alternative provision schools and MATs as both a governor and a chair.
I would urge anybody who is interested to find out more and, if you have friends in industry who may also be potentially interested, please spread the word!
Six considerations for governor recruitment
There is no single formula for recruiting school governor volunteers – it would be easy if there was! All schools and people are different, so a creative, multi-pronged approach is best. Here are a few things for schools to think about.
Raise the governor profile: Celebrate and elevate the role of your school governors on an on-going basis to support your recruitment goals. It is all about creating awareness and interest you can build on. Potential volunteers are interested in making a difference, so let them see how governors do that. Whether it is in bite-size videos, news items on the school website, information in community newsletters and the local press, celebrating the achievements of your governors either individually or as a board and seeing them included prominently within the activities of the school will help to raise awareness of what they do and how they contribute to the school and community.
Know the skills you need: Conducting a governor skills audit each year will help you identify and target the skills you need, as well as indicate where training for existing governors could benefit the board’s effectiveness.
Plan your campaign: Review how you advertise for governors and give yourself the best chance of success. Don’t overload your call for volunteers with detail at the first post. Do things in stages as part of a considered campaign. Focus on a single message first with a compelling reason why someone should volunteer – and, of course, what they will gain from doing so. You can provide all the details later on.
Write the right way: The critical thing to remember is that you’re asking people to take on a substantial task in their own spare time, for free, so approach writing adverts with that subtle difference in mind. Focus on the volunteer first and what the experience can offer them. You need to carefully craft your text to spark emotion so that people feel compelled to join you in your mission. It needs to be personal, engaging and aspirational, and tailored to the medium you will be using to best target the people you are looking for, whether that’s social media, flyers, emails or posters.
Easy contact: Make it as simple as possible for people to get in touch – a QR code on a poster or flyer, a prominent phone number, or a button on an email and so on.
Match-making service: Schools may choose to widen the net of their governor recruitment drive by using an online match-making service that connects them with potential skilled volunteers. Two worth checking out are Inspiring Governance and Governors for Schools.
- Al Kingsley is chair of two multi-academy trusts, chair of his local Governors’ Leadership Group and a member of his local authority’s Scrutiny Committee for Children and Education. He is also the CEO of the NetSupport Group of companies. For his previous articles for Headteacher Update, visit http://bit.ly/htu-kingsley
My School Governance Handbook
Al Kingsley’s new book condenses two decades of school governance experience across infant, primary, secondary, all-through and alternative provision schools and academies, explaining the basics of school governance and what the role entails. With descriptions of how schools and MATs are structured, the key areas of school life governors need to understand, relevant questions to ask and a handy dictionary to navigate through all the acronyms. Visit https://alkingsley.com/governance-book/
Further information & resources
- Governors for Schools: https://governorsforschools.org.uk
- Henson, Sharma, & Tate: Governance volunteers and board practice, NGA, November 2021: https://bit.ly/3caJWe5
- Inspiring Governance: www.inspiringgovernance.org
- NGA: School governance 2019, September 2019: https://bit.ly/3KeoDoe
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