The school governor’s life: eyes on, hands off

Amid lots of talk of how to be a more effective independent school governor, Hilary Moriarty asks, why should you want to do it in the first place?

There are moments when I stop and think, ‘Who would be a governor of a school?’ On my desk as I write, there’s a handbook – 102 pages – on how to be more effective as an independent school governor and it’s a scary document, describing being a governor as ‘daunting’ and ‘challenging’. But as far as I can see, it neither starts nor ends with the simple question of why you should want to do it in the first place.

There are great pleasures in governorship, as I have discovered in the last two years. In particular, do not underestimate the invitations.

That sounds facetious, and I do not mean it so; a printed card invitation to events like the carol service or speech day or a school production is a valuable thing. 

It means you are expected and there will be a seat for you – simple pleasures – but more important is the ease of access to occasions which can be dazzling and uplifting in equal measure, and, of course, popular with grandparents as well as parents, so that tickets are like gold dust. A carol service is common enough in every church, a bright moment in the dark of December, but a school carol service is something else and very often ‘quite something’. The standards achieved by choirs, orchestras and soloists in buildings which enhance every note and chord, with a thunderous organ lending a whole lot of welly – that is a seriously valuable occasion for every member of the congregation. To be there because, however obscurely or remotely, you have had a hand in making it so, is a privilege and a joy.

But you do need to watch that ‘hand’. You do not have to spend long in the company of a group – gaggle, gang, gallop? – of school governors before you will hear one of them mutter sagely, “What you have to remember is, eyes on, hands off.” The speaker may tap the side of his or her nose as if these four words have profound meaning and manage to sum up neatly and memorably the whole business of being a governor, but it’s a bit of a secret.

What does a governor do? ‘Eyes on, hands off’. That’s what they do – they watch, they observe, they notice, possibly from some distance, but always with a benign and parental interest, so they know what’s going on. And it is also what they don’t do, which is to act, to interfere. ‘Hands off’ – sorry mate, you’re only a governor. On reflection, it sounds a little like being a godparent, who signs up at the font to watching over the spiritual welfare of the godchild, but probably would not dare to act for the child in any way which parents would perceive as interfering. Fine lines to be negotiated, tightropes to be walked.

“Supporting, encouraging, making that which is desirable and possible a reality, overseeing the effective education of pupils – as my handbook reminds me, it’s extremely rewarding.”

My first venture on to a governing body was as a staff member in a newly hatched grant-maintained school, one of the first 30-odd schools nationally to make that jump out of local authority control. The new status allowed the school to stay a grammar school in the midst of comprehensivisation all around it. The new status required a governing body including staff members, not an easy adjustment on either side.

I found it baffling. When a curriculum issue was being discussed, I did not understand how the views I expressed had no more weight than those of a fellow governor who was a dentist with a daughter in the sixth form. I believed that my views were better informed and therefore more important, which drew the retort, “Yes, well you would think that.” I also recall being asked to “stop thinking like a teacher, you’re a governor now”. So now, what does the dentist have to say?

I had not at that time heard the ‘hands off’ instruction and would have found it hard to obey if I had. After all, as a member of staff, I was having to do the ‘hands on’ stuff every day. And it was very clear that I was a governor, but not to represent the staff so there were no points at which I could report to my colleagues on a governing meeting. Keeping a grip on what was repeatable and what was super-confidential was never easy.

My next encounter with a governing body was in an independent school where I was the Deputy Head. Unusually at the time, the Head wanted the Deputy to attend governors’ meetings on the very sensible basis of the Deputy needing to know as much as the Head did about the running of the school in the unlikely event of her sudden departure. For me, in this case, it was, ‘Eyes on, hands off, mouth shut’.  

When I asked the Head about contributing to the governors’ discussions, I was told that as Deputy, my views would, of course, be the same as hers, and they did not need to be expressed twice. Years later, my path crossed that of the Chairman, who remarked that back in the day, governors had never understood why I made so little contribution to their meetings. They had been baffled by my silence. At the time, none of them asked why. And I had not complained.

“There are great pleasures in governorship, as I have discovered. In particular, do not underestimate the invitations.”

Finally, out of the classroom, the Head’s office and the bigger arena of the Boarding Schools’ Association, I was invited to join the governors of a state primary school and of an independent school. Happily, their dates have not yet clashed, not even for carol services, so I have been able to attend the kinds of events at which most staff see you and realise that you do have a genuine interest in the school.

My two schools – the possessive pronoun comes very quickly – are in different worlds but the same anxieties and concerns crop up. And in response, you can feel, in both rooms, a wish to be helpful, as if collectively the assembled governors are wanting to ask the staff present, “How can I help? What do you want of me? What’s the most important thing on your horizon? What is your worst fear?” As a Bursar of mine used to say, “Which is the wolf nearest the sledge?”

There was once a TV ad in which the refrain encouraging the audience to buy a low-calorie drink went something like, 

“You can do it – we can help!” And perhaps that’s how governors, collectively, feel. The school, its senior managers, its dedicated staff – they can do it – raise the exam passes, create a fantastic choir, field winning teams, keep fees as low as is feasible, keep parents as happy as possible, manage complaints effectively and fast, and meet all the expectations of whatever inspecting authority may drop in at any moment. The school can do it, governors – we – can help. Having oversight, not meddling. Supporting, encouraging, making that which is desirable and possible a reality, overseeing the effective education of pupils – as my handbook reminds me, it’s extremely rewarding.

So, who would be a governor? 

I would. Eyes on, hands off – except when we are clapping. 

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of The Boarding Schools’ Association 

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