As it gets more difficult to recruit school governors, Absolutely Education looks at the challenges of the changing role of school governors

When my mother became a school governor in the 70s, one of the other governors resigned. He was making a stand at a woman joining the board. In those days, many governors were appointed on the back of a drinks party or being a friend of the Brigadier’s. As long as they had a job, were perhaps an old boy and happy to turn up to the odd meeting, then that was good enough.

Since then, the independent educational landscape has dramatically changed resulting in the governing body being far more accountable and professional. A number of factors have caused this. The Office of Fair Trading put a stop to a cartel of annual fee increases of 8 or 9%, which had allowed schools to build up nice healthy cash surpluses. Today, most schools increase fees at the level of inflation, accepting they must manage the finances better. The Charities Commission also played their part and began scrutinising schools’ charitable status. ‘Educating’ children wasn’t enough and ‘public benefit’ became a factor. This wasn’t just about letting local residents use the facilities but about offering bursaries to educate children from families unable to pay fees. Unless endowments and legacies were in place, schools would have to find the money to fund these bursaries.


As a result, today the bottom line of the financial accounts has shrunk and the responsibility lies entirely with the governing body to keep the school developing. Because of this responsibility and the fact that governors are legally and financially liable for the school, the line is blurring between governing body and management. Governors still have to remind themselves that governance is about identifying ‘ends’ and not about the ‘means’ of achieving that end. “The board is there to deal with broad issues not granular issues,” says Matthew Rice who has been Chairman of Bedales School for the last six years and a governor for ten.

Recruiting governors is becoming tougher. The selection process in most schools is formal and people are recruited to fill certain defined positions whether it’s legal, financial, education, estates, welfare and safeguarding. At Bedales the hoard recruits two years ahead of a vacancy coming up and each governor has a fixed eight-year tenure. Rice believes that being a governor must be, “fun, to keep up levels of enthusiasm,” particularly given it’s voluntary and time consuming. He believes the education committee must be excellent and that safeguarding has become more important in recent years where policies are reviewed regularly. He also emphasises gender balance and believes a board in a co-ed school should ideally be 50:50. Bedales has a varied range of ages on its governing body, with one being 29, one of the youngest private school governors around. Rupert Robson, a governor at Sherborne Boys, believes that “diversity” is crucial on the Board to ensure a range of thinking and input at meetings. “It isn’t just gender and age diversity, but also background and experience.


Not trespassing on the domain of the Head is hard particularly when under pressure in the toughest environment private schools have ever faced. Lucinda Sunnucks, Chair of governors at Hanford, says, “You must have an excellent relationship with the Head. We chat things over regularly, see where potential problem areas are and deal with them together before they manifest themselves.” Ian Bromilow, Chair of governors at Milton Abbey, adds, “The Head is the ‘critical friend’ and you must spend time building a relationship with them. At times there are frank discussions and we may not always agree, but it’s important they don’t feel governors are being critical but working together for the good of the school. We’re on the same side.” Rupert Robson believes that like any non-exec board, an experienced governor will keep their distance from the head operationally and understand the parameters of the role. “Inevitably there is tension present in every situation or entity on a board whether it’s a school, mutual, public company or charity, particularly with a board that is fairly anachronistic meeting infrequently three times a year.”

Parent governors often sit on the board and give a useful insight into the school from a parent perspective. Lucinda Sunnucks believes a parent governor is a bonus as, “they know the reality of the school.” However, this can be challenging as they’re accessible to other parents on a regular basis and may face an interrogation on the latest fee increase. Robson says appointing a parent governor is, “like a company asking the client or customer to be a director. From a legal perspective, the fact they’re a parent is irrelevant but they may have to declare a conflict of interest.” It can also be complex if a school faces a major strategic change. There can be no personal agendas on the board and governors have to remain totally discreet, despite being easy targets in the school car park.

With all the legalities and liabilities, it begs the question why anyone would give up their time and face the risk in being a governor? “You have to feel confident and trust your advisers, the head and the bursar. Above all, you have to love the school,” says Lucinda Sunnucks. However, with the independent sector coming under pressure, a potential change of government, introduction of VAT, and the sheer cost of private education becoming out of reach for most British families, it may well be harder to recruit governors. Governors may well have to take more of an interest in the school and a head might have to accept a closer relationship with the governors. There aren’t many non-exec directors in the commercial world who meet termly and have a financial, legal and personal liability at stake. Perhaps, therefore, we should take our hats off to the governors and hope that more people throw their hat in the ring – just for the love of a school.