Questions of governance

School governors need a good understanding of what their role entails, says Farlington School’s chair of governors Sue Mitchell

‘Governing body’: a group of people who formulate the policy and direct the affairs of an institution in partnership with the managers, especially on a voluntary or part-time basis (OED).

When I became involved with Farlington School, some four years ago, I was new to the idea of just how much responsibility the governing body has for the life and wellbeing of a school. This may seem strange, since I had just retired from many years of headship, but that was in a group of schools which operated very differently.

What I now understand as chair is that it is absolutely vital for stand-alone independent schools, such as Farlington, to have a group of committed governors with a significant variety of professional skills. Like it or not, independent schools are businesses which must be commercially viable: the head clearly has responsibilities in this area, but the intricacies of finance, estates management and, increasingly, safeguarding and human resources need support and direction from governors with expertise in those areas. One of the key problems which faces any school in the country, independent or maintained, is finding people who have such skills and, equally importantly, the time to give to the school.

Governors have to be very aware of not being “operational”. The head’s role is to manage the school on more than just the clichéd day-to-day basis, but ultimately the governors have a legal responsibility to the school and, in a worst case scenario, the chair of governors is a final port of call in a complaints or grievance procedure. Clearly governors need a good understanding of how the school operates.

I was recently invited to take the hot-seat role in an online training course for aspiring independent school heads. Governance is an area which course members felt unsure about: senior managers in schools are not always involved in governors’ meetings, so it is an area in which it is difficult to gain experience. It became evident during the course of the discussion that the relationship between head and governors and how to develop and grow it were of serious interest, as was the concern that governors, especially chairs, might intervene too much.

Once I had come to grips with the technology and dealing with a rush of incoming questions which needed immediate and accurate replies, the event focused my thoughts critically on the expectations required of governors, something which I hope will help in my role at Farlington School. It also reinforced my belief that our school is very fortunate to have such a breadth of skills amongst its current governors.

Sue Mitchell is chair of governors at Farlington School W:

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