Could you hold the key to making your local school better? West Noroflk governors speak out

Fairstead Primary School chair of governors Martin Sale and headteacher Hazel Spinks discuss plans for the new play area with school council members LtoR - Joshua Nwobodo (9), Monique Nentjes-Fernades (8), Adrianna Ryniec (11) and Harry Melton (6).
Fairstead Primary School chair of governors Martin Sale and headteacher Hazel Spinks discuss plans for the new play area with school council members LtoR - Joshua Nwobodo (9), Monique Nentjes-Fernades (8), Adrianna Ryniec (11) and Harry Melton (6).
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With almost half of West Norfolk schools battling to shake off labels of ‘requires improvement’ or ‘failing’ it is easy to point the finger at headteachers and the education authority.

But could members of the wider community take more responsibilty for bringing schools up to scratch?

A poll last year found that around 87 per cent of people are not aware that teams of volunteers – school governors – make some of the core educational decisions within our schools.

Governors are responsible for hiring headteachers, approving how school budgets are spent and being a source of challenge to headteachers – a role often described as that of a “critical friend.”

Earlier this month, Governors for Schools, a charity that matches governors with schools, said up to one in four governor positions is vacant in rural and deprived areas.

That means schools are being left without a full contingent of the manpower and expertise needed to ensure they are going in the right direction.

Martin Sale, is chair of governors at Fairstead Community Primary School, which is currently seeking two new governors.

He has served as a governor at many schools in West Norfolk since the mid 1980s and alike the majority of governors he has no background in education. Despite that Norfolk County Council have used him as a kind of trouble-shooter to support and establish governing bodies at schools facing difficulties and help turn them around.

He said: “Traditionally people may look at a governing body and think its something attractive to retired folk and yes it is. People who are retired or retired early have great skills and experience that benefit local schools and people in that position should give it serious consideration.

“What’s really important too though is that younger people see this as a way to broaden their skills and experience. Helping to run a school is like running a business. You get experience that rubs off into your private and working life.

“A good governing body really does benefit a school and the education of young people. There is no doubt at all in my mind about that. A good governing body, working alongside a good headteacher and team of staff will help improve the lives of children and young people in the school.”

Mr Sale, who is now retired, used to be chief executive of Norfolk Magistrates’ Court and said his professional life, where he had to report to a board, gave him a great insight into the role of school governors. He is now on the other side of the fence with the headteacher holding the educational expertise and reporting to him and the team.

He said the key to the role was in being prepared to monitor and compare the performance of the school with others and to ask questions about how things are being done and if there were better ways.

Fairstead Primary School’s governing body currently includes an accountant, a full-time mother, a nurse, a senior advisor in education and a small business owner.

Mr Sale said: “It is the mix that is important. Collectively we have very broad experience and in my view it makes for better quality decisions.

“If you establish a good relationship with the headteacher and understand each other’s role it is a really, really healthy relationship.”

Ofsted, the national inspection body for schools, monitors the effectiveness of governors when it assesses schools and, in the worst case, ineffective boards are removed.

Mr Sale said: “A lot of public money is put into schools and it is just not good enough if children aren’t reaching standards and that money isn’t being used to good effect. We have to ensure children are better educated, but there’s nothing to fear in becoming a governor.”

Training and support is provided to governors and employers are required to release employees to carry out their governing duties.

At the minimum, the role usually involves attending around two meetings per term plus some visits into school.

Of the value of school governors, the National Governors Association says: “Keeping the decision making as close as possible to those that are affected by the decisions makes for sound and efficient leadership and governance.

“Fulfilling the role of a school governors is both a serious undertaking and enormously rewarding.

“Contributing to the growth and development of a school and seeing tangible improvements in the attainment and well being of the children is a satisfying and important contribution to the local community.”