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Discussing Effective and Rewarding Governance in Independent Schools

Stuart Westley, Former General Secretary, The Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools (AGBIS) shares some of his thoughts on the current governance landscape across the independent schools sector.

There is a prevalent, increasingly expressed, view in both independent and non-fee paying schools that as governance is such a vital responsibility it necessarily involves a huge commitment of time from those who volunteer their services. That expectation includes attending frequent long meetings, preceded and followed by voluminous paperwork, regular attendance at school events and a duty to scrutinise the wording of multiple lengthy policies, cast in language which in truth almost all governments do not understand. Governance is thus represented as a proposition which, given the time and the responsibility involved, few rational beings would contemplate undertaking. In short the role of the school governor appears now to be fashioned by those incapable of understanding the reality of day jobs, family commitments or even the occasional recreational interest. It is a commonplace that the burden of regulation increases relentlessly and, for independent schools which are charities, the formidable Charity Commission is lurking in the background eager to pounce on unsuspecting governors at any moment.

None of that has to be true actually and it's interesting to reflect on how such inaccuracies breed.

The value of governors understanding that their role is essentially strategic and that their involvement in operational detail is both unwise and unnecessary. Governors should focus on the importance of both supporting the school’s executive leadership and holding it to account, together with the degree of knowledge and understanding necessary to do either effectively. We will consider the satisfaction gained from working collaboratively with able, committed fellow governors within a well-run team. We shall reflect on how regulation can be kept sensibly in proportion while approaching safeguarding with proper diligence. We also reflect on the value of well-run, decision focused meetings, informed by succinct, relevant paperwork addressing strategy rather than the operational detail favoured by enthusiastic authors. We may then perceive a vision of governors’ professional skills deployed strategically complementing outstanding executive leadership, together providing wonderful schools in which our young people develop their knowledge interests, skills, personalities and self-confidence.

A heavy burden or a worthy venture we will ask?