24 July 2020
To be a school governor is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience.
I have just retired, after many years’ experience of governance in independent schools. I was first a governor of my old school, Dover College, spending 13 years as Chairman and I have been involved with Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood (MTSN) on and off for 26 years, the last nine as Chairman.
The two schools are very different: one is a boarding school in the south-east corner of the country where 50% of the catchment area is water, whilst the other is a day school, in a very affluent area 30 miles north of London.
My old school, because of its location, struggles to attract sufficient pupils; numbers have always been a problem. Thankfully, this is not the case at MTSN. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite: we have too many boys applying for too few places, which brings its own problems but they are nice ones to have when running a school.
I cannot say I ever set out to become a governor. I was invited by an acquaintance who was already involved, and it was he who noted my enjoyment of people and, recognising the immense privilege as well as that young people are our future, I took the chance to give something back.
Later, I succeeded him as Chair. Every school needs a balance of skills on the board, just like any board of directors. The big difference is that you are unpaid, as under the Charities Act governors may only claim expenses. However, as directors are intimately involved in the day-to-day business of a company, governors are all non-executive. The day-to-day running is in the hands of the Head, the Bursar and their teams. If the Head and the Bursar do not gel this can lead to problems. If the Chairman, Head and Bursar do not understand each other, life can be exceedingly difficult. At MTSN I was extremely fortunate as both Head and Bursar became good friends.
As a governor, it is vital to gain an intimate understanding of the school and everything it does, by becoming a member of one of the sub-committees: finance, estates, education, etc. It is at these meetings where much of the detailed work is discussed.
Nevertheless, I believe it is important that the Chairman does not sit on sub-committees, this then allows freedom of discussion at all levels at the meetings and to ensure greater efficacy in making and executing decisions.
There are many groups who need to be kept happy: parents, pupils, staff, alumni and, in some cases, banks and finance houses. All parties play an important role in keeping any school alive and vibrant. No matter how successful a school may be, governors will see it from all angles and their objectivity and experience is important.
The relationship between the Chairman and the Head is hugely important. Unexpected items being raised at a governors’ meeting or the unheralded suggestion of a new capital project is never popular! Schools are constantly changing and must try to stay one step ahead, especially secondary schools where pupils are awake to all the latest gadgets and technology.
One of the most rewarding parts of being involved is witnessing the successes, whether they be in the classroom, the orchestra, on the sports field or even the parade ground. There are two events which will remain with me for ever: the joint school concert in Birmingham and this year’s production of Les Misérables. Both were just fantastic, involving pupils of all ages.
St Barnabas Day (as MTSN calls its prize-giving event) was always a challenge. It starts with a speech from the Head Boy; they are always excellent. Having never collected a prize at school, I just sit in awe. Once the prizes have been distributed, the Head gives a run through the successes of the year, then it is my turn to follow, as the Chairman. Last year I had a mental block at just the wrong moment and forgot the name of the Head Boy – not clever!
There have been many highlights. I especially recall the enormous success of bringing a local prep school into the Merchant Taylors’ group of schools, a negotiation requiring delicacy and strict confidentiality. There have also been many wonderful capital projects, the highlight of which has been the completion of an impressive Design and Technology building, including new 3D printers that MTSN used recently to manufacture PPE for NHS staff over the coronavirus outbreak. As a governor, you are involved in everything and can take pride in each and every school success.
I have been extremely fortunate to have been involved with schools across my career. I have found it an honour and privilege and extremely rewarding. I have met some wonderful people, all of whom are dedicated to the education of young people, making sure they get the most out of their life at school in every possible way. I thank the Company for trusting me to occupy the role of Chairman at MTSN for the last nine years.