Can you find enough governors?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

A increasingly discussed solution to the shortage of school governors is to pay them. This would be
a dangerous step, argues Dr Bernard Trafford

School governors: love them or loathe them, we can’t do without them. More to the point, we can’t get them.

This is a recurrent theme up and down the country. The most commonly proposed solution to the problem is to pay governors, an idea gaining traction. It would be a damaging and retrograde step.

I can hear colleagues’ howls of frustration: what else can be done when we simply can’t recruit governors?

First take a step back: ask yourself why we can’t find governors. At my privileged independent school in a leafy corner of Newcastle upon Tyne they’re relatively easy to recruit. I also advise a three-year-old free school in the poorest part of Newcastle: that too manages to do well for governors. Why? Because the West Newcastle Academy is a new school with a powerful sense of educational mission.

Central government seems constantly determined to demotivate governors. It doesn’t mean to, of course.

But for a couple of decades now, one administration after another has pushed an ever greater burden of responsibility and liability on to governing bodies.

Schools have always felt the pressure when Ofsted comes to call. Now governors share that pressure. They too feel under the cosh: especially when, as happened to me, they find themselves reassuring an inspector, successfully if somewhat ludicrously that the school really is doing everything possible to prevent its five-year-olds from being radicalised.

I’m not being flippant. Governors are volunteers who work hard for their schools. But government is making the burden, the sheer paper trail, so complex and demanding now that potential volunteers too often decline the opportunity to get involved. They don’t need any more pressure on top of their day job: and retired people might feel they didn’t finish working just to take on that kind of pain.

All that appears, then, to support the argument for remunerating governors: being paid to do so, they would volunteer and turn out. I disagree: being paid, and therefore being professional, contradicts the concept of governance.

Governors are the timeless guardians of an institution. Children and their parents come and go. Teachers and heads do, too. But, even though governor bodies inevitably also change their constituency, they ensure, through good succession planning, that they look after the long-term, decades or even centuries-long purpose and mission of the school.

Whence comes the rationale for remunerated governors? Schools are already equipped with paid professionals to run them. Whatever the shape or size of the school, a senior team will be managing it. Those are the professionals who are paid to take responsibility and to bear the professional, moral and legal burdens. Where is the justification for the expense of creating an additional layer of professional management – above the school’s professional management?

The proposal didn’t emanate from government, but it matches the way Whitehall’s bureaucratic mind works. A constantly burgeoning bureaucracy continues to strangle schools.

Governors should monitor the effectiveness of the school’s professional staff, and exercise long-term oversight of the institution, its health and its progress. But to force them to prove to Westminster via the inspectorate (through copious paperwork) that they are “challenging the head”, or otherwise pushing the professional staff, both demeans their role and renders it wholly unattractive and dismally unrewarding.

Me, I’d rather rattle a charity tin outside Sainsbury’s. I’m serious. We shouldn’t need to pay people to govern schools: instead we should reduce the burdens and requirements that are making school governance increasingly uncongenial and close to overwhelming.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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