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The Changing Face of Governorship

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The below news item ran in the Spring edition of Independent School Magazine:

At the end of 2019 and after 12 years in position, Michael Griffiths retired as Chairman of Governors at Bolton School. With 33 years of experience serving on the Governing Body (GB), he agreed to talk with us about how the role of governor has changed over the years and what attributes schools should look for when appointing a governor.

Firstly, tell us a little about Bolton School.

“Bolton School is an independent day school in Greater Manchester with roots going back to 1516. It consists of separate girls’ and boys’ senior and junior schools plus a co-ed infant school and nursery. There are approximately 2,400 pupils on a single campus under the responsibility of a single GB.”

How has the role and responsibilities of governor evolved over the last three decades?

“My first governors’ meeting was in January 1987 and it was unusual in that the whole Board of about 20 people was interviewing the final three shortlisted candidates for the position of Clerk and Treasurer (Bursar). In my time as a governor, I have been involved in the appointment of 5 Heads and 3 Bursars. We still retain this format for the final interview for the Heads and Bursar positions, believing the whole GB should take ownership of these critical appointments. However, we have changed a key element of the process and for the last 3 appointments have appointed professional head-hunters to assist us rather than engaging a recently retired Head to conduct the search through their professional network.

Many other aspects of governance have, not surprisingly, also changed and these perhaps fall into two broad classifications. Firstly, the management of the increase in regulation and responsibilities that has fallen upon schools and governors over the last 30 years or so. Secondly, the need to ensure that we are sustainably, financially strong so that we can maintain our independence.

To address the first of these issues it is important to have a GB ‘fit for the purpose’. We developed a skills matrix to ensure that new governors were appointed on the basis of skills needed. It was important that governors were committed, took their appointment seriously and were prepared to spend the time needed to ‘do the job’. This latter aspect has often been a challenge as potential governors, with the right skill sets, are often very busy people. It has perhaps resulted in a GB with a relatively high proportion of alumni, leaving us open to the criticism of being ‘parochial’. We are conscious of this and to ensure an informed and balanced approach we have successfully recruited some alumni who have spent most, if not all, of their working career away from the Bolton area in order to ensure a diversity of experience. Another aspect that has differentiated our approach from a number of other charities and GBs is that whilst every governor must offer themselves for re-election every 3 years, there is no limit on how many terms they can serve. Whilst we have been conscious of the need to prevent the Board becoming stale, we have been equally concerned about losing valuable experience and knowledge.

Having focussed on a Board with the correct skill set it was important that they had the appropriate background knowledge, and that this was continually updated.  We acknowledged that most of our governors were not education experts, and indeed were not expected to be. Yet increasingly, as more regulations were imposed and responsibilities added, we were being required to make decisions based on our own limited knowledge and experience of the educational aspects. To remedy this, we introduced a second governors’ meeting at the beginning of each term. This would, ideally, consider just two topics and thus would not suffer the time constraints that existed in our normal meetings. The meetings would cover a vast array of subjects, such as annual strategy reviews, examinations, the operation of our Infant and Junior Schools, added value, EYFS,  fundraising, capital investment proposals, safeguarding, inspections, governance, risk reviews, bursary fund development, marketing and many other relevant topics. They have been highly successful, and I believe fundamental in enabling us to properly execute our task as Governors.

The second aspect to which I referred was the need to be sustainably financially strong. We recognised the school needed the characteristics and form of a business, something which did not always sit easily with the role of being an educational charity. In the late ‘80s we made the small, but important, practical move of changing our financial year-end from the 31st March to the 31st August, to reflect the natural business cycle of the school. At the same time, we recognised that virtually all our income derived from fees and that we had no significant other means of generating income. If we were to make major capital investments and provide bursary funds for pupils in the future, we needed to rethink our finances. Consequently, in the early ‘90s, we devised a simple financial budgeting model that is still in operation today. We also formed a trading company with the objective of ‘sweating’ the schools’ assets when they were not being used for education. The effective implementation of these measures meant we overcame a serious financial deficit, and burgeoning overdraft, to put ourselves in the black and capable of generating positive cash flows. Ten years later, that enabled us to consider embarking on an ambitious capital investment programme and provided a firm sustainable foundation for our bursary endowment. It was important to take a long-term view, to have a clear strategy, and a patient, disciplined evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach.

In practical terms, our success can be measured in the completion, over the last 12 years, of a major capital investment programme costing £25m with no legacy borrowing; the provision of i-pads to every pupil in School from Year 3 upwards; and the awarding of almost £30m in Bursary funding to 2000 pupils over the last 21 years whilst at the same time establishing a Bursary Endowment Fund that today stands at over £30m. Crucially, as part of our strategy to make the school affordable, we have also kept our annual fee increase to 2%, for each of the last 4 years, whilst improving our offer.

We also recognised that we were an integral part of the Bolton and wider North West community and had a responsibility to become more engaged and improve our contribution to its greater wellbeing. We participate with the state sector in numerous educational partnerships and encourage our students to engage in a wide range of voluntary activities. Their participation is recognised and celebrated in our annual Community Awards Evening. Our involvement in voluntary work was recognised in 2017 when we became the first school in the country to be achieve the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. In 2019 our work in and with the community and our extensive provision of bursaries was rewarded when we were named as the TES Independent School of the Year”.

In recent years, you have been Chairman of Governors. What have you found to be the essential skills required to satisfactorily fulfil that role?

“It’s important to remember that governors set the ethos and culture of the School – that they are its guardians. We should not forget that the GB is ultimately responsible for the School, that ‘the buck stops with them’. This is a significant responsibility which must be exercised with great skill and care and must never be abdicated. It is important that you have a committed, balanced and diverse Board whose members have, between them, the necessary skills to achieve proper governance.  It is crucial to encourage governors to have full participation in all decisions made. Given how busy they often are, it is important to be flexible and accommodating in the demands placed upon them. However, you must also be prepared to part company if a satisfactory accommodation is not achievable. Governors should have a thorough understanding of the School and the challenges it faces and, the Chairman should have a first-class working relationship with the Heads and Bursar.”

If a potential governor – hesitating about taking on the responsibility – asked your advice about the pros and cons of the role, what would you say?

“The positives far outweigh the negatives. Governorship presents a real opportunity to make a difference for the benefit of future generations and it is always extremely satisfying when you meet students displaying their talent and skills. A School is a very different environment to that in which most governors work, and it can provide a refreshing intellectual challenge. Education has a remarkable and continuing multiplier effect that will positively impact upon the communities with which the students engage throughout the rest of their lives.  To have some very small beneficial input is extremely satisfying. Throughout my life I have found being a volunteer is an extraordinarily satisfying experience. Prospective governors should, however, consider the time commitment as this can be considerable.”

One of the most significant tasks of any GB must be the appointment of a new head. Which recruitment methods did you find work best?

“On receipt of a letter of resignation from the Head, the Chairman immediately activates a dormant appointments committee consisting of 4 Senior Governors. They will manage the process on behalf of the Governors to the point of producing a shortlist of ideally 3 candidates who will be interviewed and selected by the whole GB. This is a challenging period for the Committee as they must get the process right in a short period of time. They may start by having a ‘beauty parade’ to select ‘head-hunters’ or may already know who they would appoint. The committee would be actively involved in selecting a longlist, and interviewing them, from which they would produce the shortlist to present to governors.”

You were a beneficiary of the direct grant scheme and have done much to enable Bolton to offer bursary support to widen access. Would you like to see a return of the direct grant – much lamented by many – or perhaps the introduction of a voucher scheme exchangeable by parents in full settlement of a state school education or in part-payment of an independent school one?

“It is very tempting to wish for the glory days of the Direct Grant or even a voucher scheme – both would be attractive. However, the reality is that the Direct Grant would probably not be a replica of the old scheme and the voucher scheme would no doubt have aspects that didn’t satisfy everyone. There would always be the fear that a change of government, or even a shift of opinion in the same government, could result in the abolition of this new support. Neither previous Conservative governments, and certainly not Labour governments, have been wholehearted supporters of providing financial support to private education. I assume they don’t see it as a vote winner. It’s clearly a complete travesty that private education does not receive a single penny of taxpayers’ money even though parents pay their taxes and the schools themselves make major contributions to GDP. Whilst I would support any movement to restore any financial contribution, I would not view it as a long-term solution.

My view is that independent schools must own the challenge and recognise that if they wish to remain independent, they must build their own financial resources. This may seem a daunting prospect and is certainly a long-term strategy. It requires a clear plan, continuing determination and rigorous financial discipline. There are no quick fixes and it must be recognised from the outset that the real beneficiary of the strategy will be the school several generations hence. But it should not be forgotten that many Schools today are probably enjoying the rewards of benefactors’ foresight in the past. So now it is our turn to make a difference for pupils in the future.”

What will you do with your spare time?

“That’s a question that I’m frequently asked, much to my surprise. So far, I don’t seem to have had much spare time, probably because I have been addressing things that have been neglected in recent years due to other commitments.

However, I have spent almost all my life being involved in voluntary work of some kind, particularly to help in situations where I can use my professional skills and experience, and I hope and expect that will continue. I also hope that I will have some more time to pursue my numerous interests and spend more time with my family.  But life would be boring if new challenges and opportunities didn’t arise.”

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