Recruiting Good Governors

It was great to be involved in the Optimus Education Conference in October 2013: Developing Strategic and Robust Governance. My keynote was about recruitment and retention of governors and I thought it was worth capturing a few of the threads here.

The full title was: Recruiting the most effective governing body: How to identify, approach, attract and retain committed candidates that fit the objectives of your school

I’m going to cover retention in a separate post, but here are a few thoughts about recruitment…

Question 1: We’ve got a vacancy – why should we fill it?

Starting from the assumption that we’ve got a vacancy on the Governing Body,  the first issue is whether we should fill it at all. There is a train of thought that academy governing bodies are flexible – having ‘up to’ a certain number of governors – but we tend to always think of vacancies as a bad thing in the maintained sector. I think we should get away from that way of thinking. Especially if we’ve reconstituted under the 2012 regulations and have smaller numbers of elected governors and more co-opted positions. If we have one or two co-opted governor vacancies but the governing body is operating effectively why not leave ourselves with some flexibility in case the needs of the school change or an outstanding candidate presents themselves?

My own governing body had four vacancies at our last Ofsted inspection. Ofsted weren’t interested in that, they only wanted to know what impact the governing body was having.

Question 2: Is the size and structure of our governing body fit for purpose?

Converter academies are being criticised by the Department for failing to take the opportunity at conversion to review their governance arrangements, and maintained schools haven’t adopted the 2012 Constitution Regulations in the numbers the government was hoping for. I think the 2012 regs merit a blog to themselves so suffice it say here that they give us much greater flexibilities and were intended to fulfill the intention expressed in the 2010 White Paper, that we would be able to establish governing bodies “with appointments primarily focused on skills”.

Good HR practice would tell us to review our staffing structures when we get a vacancy – we should be doing the same when we get a vacancy on our governing body – is the size and structure fit for purpose for the needs of the school now and in the future?

Question 3: What are the objectives of your school?

It’s hard to attract candidates to your governing body that ‘fit the objectives of your school’ without being clear what these are. What is it that makes our school unique, and stand out from the school down the road. Or, as an Ofsted inspector once asked me: “If I wanted to buy your school what is its unique selling point?”.

AliceOr in the wise words of the Cheshire Cat – how can we know which way to go if we don’t know where we want to end up? The Department likes to call governors the “guardians of the vision” and I think that’s one of our most important roles. But how can we get the right people to guard our vision if we’re not clear what it is?

Question 4: We want to fill the vacancy – how do we do it?

vacancyAssuming we’ve sorted all of that out – what next? According to Lord Nash “All schools make two vital decisions. Who is the head and who sits on the governing body” which is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone equate the two – recruiting governors as important as recruiting the headteacher. Why would that be? ;-). He went on to explain it in this way: “Governors can effect significant change … Although governance is a voluntary role that does not mean it’s an amateur one. It’s a highly professional, highly responsible job, performing an absolutely critical role”. And I’m certainly not disagreeing.

No pressure then.

There are two types of governor on any governing body. Those that we appoint, and those that we don’t. So let’s start by focusing on those that we appoint: community, co-opted appointed parents and sponsor governors (you won’t have all of those – and you can only appoint parents if you’ve tried and failed to elect them).

Let’s be careful that when the term of office of one of these governors comes to an end we don’t just reappoint them automatically. Hard sometimes, but if someone isn’t contributing or we need that vacancy to appoint someone who can contribute more appropriately to the current needs of the school, we need to have a process in place that ensures the reappointment won’t be automatic.

We wouldn’t appoint a new member of staff without them completing an application form and going through some form of interview, and yet we routinely do this with governors. Why don’t we have a process that requires even reappointees to outline what they will contribute to the school and why they will be an asset to our governing body? Reappointees should also be asked what they’ve contributed to date, in my view.

Sometimes we’re just so desperate – so glad that someone’s come forward – that we don’t want to put any more barriers up. But honestly, if someone won’t even complete a short form why would I want them on my governing body? As someone once said to me: we’d never recruit a head teacher who said ‘oh, go on then, if no-one else will do it I’ll give it a go…’.

So where are we going to find the people who’re going to be the guardians of our vision? People already known to governors are a good starting point, and never underestimate the power of the tap on the shoulder – ‘you would make a fantastic governor, come and join us’. but we should be widening our search also. What are our links with local businesses? Some businesses support and promote their employees getting involved in the community in roles like this. What links do we have with local community groups, churches, the local council? What community partnerships are there in place? We need to know our own communities and make links where we can.

And why aren’t more of us using the ‘best kept secret of governor recruitment’ SGOSS? They say they work with 11% of schools at the moment (this was accurate at the time of writing, as of May 2014 this has increased to 26% I’m told). Presumably the other 89% of us aren’t having any problems with governor recruitment….?

OK, I’ll be honest here, I’ve never used SGOSS myself until now. I mean, I have as a Local Authority officer, they’ve found us some excellent governors, but I haven’t used them for my own school. But I’ve registered now, and I’m interviewing someone on Friday who’ve they found for us, so fingers crossed. 🙂

So, no rocket science then, just a few questions: how do we make sure we have as wide a recruitment pool as possible, do we have application forms, do we have interviews, do we make sure we don’t automatically reappoint people who don’t contribute? But in my experience, and I work with a lot of governing bodies, not that many of us are doing these basic things.

I’ll finish on a few thoughts about elected and externally appointed governors. I’ll leave staff governors aside. There are probably other problems if you’re having difficulties getting staff governors.

PGParent Governors – I’m surprised how often I see people just shrugging their shoulders when it comes to parent governor recruitment and saying – ‘we just have to take what we’re given’. Well that’s true in some ways of course, but there are things we can do to help. Maintained schools have to follow the LA parent governor election process, but there’s nothing to stop us sending out additional information to prospective candidates. This is the letter I used recently in my primary school. And @ukgovchat have compiled a letter from various contributions, which you might find helpful. And induction of new parent governors is particularly important too.

The government is about to consult on changes to the Constitution Regulations. The preliminary consultation said this: “We propose that information published about candidates for election should include:

  • Evidence that they possess the skills required by the governing body;
  • The training and development opportunities they will commit to undertake to acquire or develop the skills to be an effective governor; and
  • If seeking re-election, details of the contribution and key achievements of their previous term of office.”

I like this idea. A lot. Keep your eyes open for that consultation!

vicarFoundation Governors – Now this can be a difficult one. in maintained voluntary aided schools you must have a majority of Foundation Governors even if you’ve reconstituted, and sometimes these are recruited from very small pools, and sometimes they’re recruited as though the additional responsibility of upholding the religious ethos is the only important thing. And if you’re a FG yourself or responsible for appointing them I apologise, but it is sometimes the case! The advantage here to having reconstituted under the new regs is that you don’t have to have some FGs who are also parents, which can be an ever greater barrier to recruitment. All I can say is keep in a close contact to your appointing body (or bodies) as you can and make it clear to them you’re seeking individuals with the skills your governing body needs.

And the government is asking the following in its consultation: “Do you think regulations should require that Foundation governors have, in the opinion of the appointing body, the skills required to contribute to the effective governance and success of the school?”. Er. yes!

LA govLocal Authority Governors – Having fallen out with the faith community I’m now going to fall out with LAs (P45 expected shortly) and say we often don’t do LA governor appointments very well. It’s a stereotype but I hear about elected members being appointed and then not attending meetings too often for there not to be some truth in it sometimes. Some LAs (including mine I must rapidly clarify) have excellent processes around this, but basically, if you don’t like the way your LA governors are appointed then please stop moaning and reconstitute. For governing bodies that have reconstituted under the 2012 regs the definition of LA governor has changed to this: someone “appointed as a governor by the governing body having, in the opinion of the governing body, met any eligibility criteria that they have set.” So the onus is on you to set the criteria and then only accept them if they meet it – which could include an interview process etc.

And that’s it – my whistle stop tour of governor recruitment. And it’s been a bit of a marathon, so if you’ve made it to the end I salute you…

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