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Why HR professionals should consider school governor roles

12 Jul 2018 By Maggie Baska

As these practitioners have discovered, giving back to a local school is the perfect way to sharpen your HR skills

A stint back in the classroom can be the perfect way to take your career to the next level. But for hundreds of HR professionals across the UK, going to school isn’t about educating themselves – it’s about addressing a serious shortage of governors and helping schools get their people practices and strategies in order.

They’re volunteering as part of a scheme called Inspiring Governance, administered by the Education and Employers charity and supported by the CIPD, which connects professionals with schools in England looking for governors and trustees. 

Approximately one in 10 school governor positions are vacant despite the fact that a quarter of a million people across the country are already volunteering for the role, according to research by the National Governance Association (NGA) and TES. Schools in rural or deprived areas and those that ‘require improvement’ after inspections are among the hardest hit. 

Governors play a key role in raising school standards and provide strategic guidance. These volunteers help make up the governing board, which among various responsibilities is involved in senior staff recruitment, the allocation of financial resources and creating effective policies and procedures for schools. They typically volunteer between five and eight hours a month.

An Inspiring Governance survey of governors found that volunteering gives HR professionals the ability to learn and develop new skills that can benefit their careers – including cross-disciplinary team working, board-level experience and change management. 

But there’s an equally important benefit to schools. Salaries can take up 70-80 per cent of school budgets, yet many lack specific expertise in recruitment, retention and reward. HR professionals can help them recruit more cost-effectively, think more strategically and stay within the law on sensitive employment matters.

Oliver Daly, senior HR consultant at law firm Stone King, says his experience working as an HR professional in the education sector has helped during his time as governor at Stapleford Abbotts Primary School in east London.

“The role of governor is to scrutinise and help the school function,” Daly says. “I have advised on everything from complex employment relations issues to the GDPR. I feel like my professional experience has really helped the governing body and the school.”

Working as a governor has helped him empathise with school leaders – which had been doubly useful in his day job providing legal and HR advice to schools and charities. “Volunteering has helped me get views from the other side of the fence,” he says. “Now I have a different perspective and insight on what headteachers and governors face, which has really helped me in my work. I feel like I can speak to them on a new level as I understand what they are dealing with.”

Victoria Cleaver, head of people at fintech start-up Monitise, agrees that working as a governor at Newport Primary School in Essex has given her the ability to look at things from a new perspective; rather than mixing with fellow business leaders, she is forming strategy with parents, teachers and a priest. 

“It’s been a big shift from doing things to thinking about strategy,” she says. “My current role is maybe 30 per cent strategy and 70 per cent operations. The volunteer role has been all strategy. Being able to take that step back has been really helpful at work.”

Cleaver says the experience has helped boost her career and she has recommended governorship to colleagues in the HR profession: “I think they will get so much more experience than just being in the business they work in now. It’s really immersing yourself in a brand new business, meeting a diverse group of people and developing in a new environment. These are skills you won’t get anywhere else.”

"Be prepared for some tough questions"

Kim Frost is university secretary and HR director at the University of London. He is a governor at Broughton Junior School

“The role of a governor is often described as a ‘critical friend’, and a background in HR trains you in analysing, advising and supporting, as well as challenging forcefully when needed. These are all essential for the governing body to work effectively. 

“When my previous school converted to an academy, I was able to advise on HR and performance management policies and review draft procedures. Schools often lack access to in-depth HR support and to have someone who could point out how to reconcile the law and common sense was often useful.

“However, it can be challenging. My favourite moment so far has been a celebratory lunch for the top-performing 12-year-olds, and I was one of the governors who attended. I was quizzed relentlessly by 27 girls about school policies and the shortcomings of the canteen menus. When I got home, I had to lie down for an hour – the sheer energy of that group was indescribable.”

Inspiring Governance is a free service funded by the Department for Education, and the CIPD is keen to encourage more members to volunteer their expertise as school governors.

To find out more, visit inspiringgovernance.org

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