Fit to govern

Dr Tim Miller explains the importance of school governors and how governance systems work in the Girls’ Day School Trust

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) is a network of independent girls’ schools with nearly 20,000 pupils in 24 schools and two academies throughout England and Wales. The organisation has evolved significantly since it was established over 140 years ago, but commitment to excellence in governance remains a priority.

The GDST’s governance structure is unusual in that all its schools are owned and run by the trust. This means that its council or board of trustees has ultimate responsibility for their performance. A local strategic and non-executive presence remains in each school in the form of a school governing board (SGB), but school governors have a different role to those of standalone independent schools.

An important role for governors is to provide constructive challenges to the school’s head.  The GDST provides written guidance which sets out the role of the SGB and how this translates into practice. Governors undertake training at GDST head office and are advised about the information that they should expect to receive. The relationship between the SGB and the head, though, should ultimately be positive and mutually respectful, as with any school.

At Nottingham Girls’ High School, for example, the relationship between the head, Sue Gorham, and chair of the SGB, Professor Jenny Saint, has always been productive. As Sue says: “Jenny’s understanding of my role as head and hers as chair of governors is really important. I can use her as a sounding board through both the highs and lows of headship and I do not doubt for a minute that I have her support and that she has confidence in me. I appreciate the fact that she has been in a similar role and she therefore understands the pressures of headship and can draw on her experience and offer appropriate advice.”

Jenny concurs: “The relationship between the SGB and the school is based on trust and respect. SGB members bring their considerable experience to enhance girls’ learning through business workshops and mentoring activities. Input to the school’s strategic plan means the SGB can engage in its ongoing development and progress and align plans to business and employment opportunities. Their involvement in the school’s work and interaction with the girls means that members are in tune with current education challenges and trends, which helps them with their recruitment and ongoing development of staff.”

It is also important that the school develops strong links with its local community. SGB members are expected to be able to speak up for and promote the school and the GDST. Governors are encouraged to keep themselves informed about local events and to take an active interest in the life of the school, while taking care not to exceed their remit when it comes to management or operational matters. Any organisation, particularly one involved in the education of young people, needs to develop its governance arrangements on a continuous basis to meet the challenges that the independent sector faces in this changing environment.

In order to ensure SGBs have the right mix of skills and experience, the GDST uses a skills matrix as part of the recruitment process. In addition to an interest in the trust and the school, potential candidates should also have a sound understanding of the Nolan principles, plus the usual qualities needed to serve on a committee, such as breadth of experience, team working and sufficient time to give to the role. An interest in education, strategic thinking, the ability to challenge constructively and willingness to act as an ambassador are also important. Individual schools also identify specific skills they might need that are relevant to their particular context.

School governors are recruited in a variety of ways, through the contacts of the SGBs and the wider school community and via an alumnae network. People approach the GDST directly too, and while parent governors provide a helpful perspective, it’s also important that an SGB remains balanced.

Dr Tim Miller is chair of the Girls’ Day School Trust

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