Getting involved – how the chair can motivate governors to participate

By: Linda Waghorn, Governance Consultant

Governance is, above all else, a collective responsibility and therefore the process of governance requires all governors/trustees to engage and participate, for it to be effective.

I am currently the Chair of a Local Governing board at a school in West Sussex that is part of a small local Multi Academy Trust. In the past I have chaired governing boards in a variety of other settings and all chairing roles I have held have taught me that a vital aspect of my role, and of chairs in all boards, is to ensure they are inclusive of all governors and encourage and promote active engagement in the process of governance and of course full participation in all meetings.

The starting point is always to ensure that anyone considering becoming a governor fully understands what they are volunteering for: volunteering to become a governor is not about wearing a badge, it is about making a commitment to actively support and champion the learning and care of all children and young people in your school. Governors need to understand what governance is and, of course, what it is not. Many aspiring governors are driven by the desire to ‘give something back’ providing an excellent platform on which to build a deeper knowledge of the role.

I have always made a point of talking to prospective governors and explaining what governance is, the expectations that we have of each other and those that statutory regulations impose on us. I am also keen to outline how much time we are asking governors to give to the role. Dependant on the way the governing board is structured can make a difference to the time commitment we ask governors to sign up to but in a typical set up, where there are no committees, and the full board meets every half term, we are talking of a time commitment, involving reading papers, attending meetings, visiting the school, and accessing training for the role of roughly 35-50 hours a year.

I am always keen to work with my vice-chair and other governors to support the induction of new governors. It doesn’t need to be a formal mentoring scheme, although I have seen these work exceptionally well in many schools that do operate them. It can be less formal and simply be another relatively new governor who can support and encourage them to get involved right from the start of their term of office. Most governors serve a four-year term of office and doing all that we can, at individual board level, to ensure new governors quickly ascend what can appear to be a steep learning curve, is a worthwhile investment in pushing effective governance forward.

Apart from making it clear that our board expects all governors to engage in training to ensure their professional development, as a governor, equips them for their role, I try to ensure that our meetings are clear, the agenda maps out the meeting effectively, and that minutes provide an accurate summary/overview of what has been discussed and agreed. We try to avoid abbreviations and acronyms, which education is peppered with, or at least explain what they mean.

Every board is made up of unique individuals and it is important to develop an understanding of everyone’s strengths and development needs to ensure the board works collectively as a team. I encourage all governors to ask questions; not only is this the best demonstration of our accountability function as governors, but it is a great opportunity to deepen governors’ learning about their school and the broader educational and governance landscape. I’m not the sort of chair who revels in putting individuals on the spot, but I ensure I am aware of who is and who is not participating and will have what I hope is a quiet and sensitive word, outside of the meeting, to explore what we can do to make them feel comfortable and confident in asking questions and participate fully. For me a key element of this is to focus on the culture of the board itself. How welcoming do we appear to new governors, do we ensure they are warmly welcomed and at initial meetings does the chair explain, for the benefit of new governors, what is being discussed and why.

I see my role, as chair, very much as an enabler or facilitator. Yes, I lead governance within my school but in meetings, whilst I lead the agenda and ensure a smooth-running effective meeting, I try to not lead the discussion and assert my view first. I try to encourage others to contribute to open and frank discussions, so that a full spectrum of views and opinions is considered, which will inform more effective decision making and ultimately more effective governance. I want every board member to feel that they play a vital role in our governance team.

Linda Waghorn – Governance Consultant