Our CEO Louise Cooper talks about the overlap between governors on school and business boards, and what we can learn from it. 

Schools rely on governors to keep them running effectively. And that’s especially true in the current financial climate, as budgets are squeezed in real terms and schools must scrutinise the value of every pound.

Modern schools are run like businesses, and just like businesses, they need effective governance and strategic guidance from the top. Private sector organisations rely on boards of directors to focus on the long-term success of the company just as schools rely on their trustees and governors. When nearly 80% of school budgets are spent on staff, boards must ensure not only financial but also robust HR oversight to get the best out of teachers and leadership teams. So why aren’t we seeing more crossover between the two sectors – and what can we do about it?

The role of boards in schools and businesses

The Institute of Directors published a report in October focusing on the transferable benefits of being a governor in both the private and education sector. The report, which I advised on, highlights the similarities and differences between the roles in both sectors – in terms of what it entails, what it helps achieve, and the inherent challenges.

Although the definition of success differs between businesses and schools, there are strong parallels in most aspects of governance. It’s vital to separate strategic and operational decisions. Governors don’t have the time or expertise to get bogged down with the detail. Governors and trustees must know their school or business well enough to be able to challenge effectively. Headteachers rely on the governing board to hold them to account – if no one’s asking the difficult questions, things go unchallenged, and standards can slip.

Data can be vital in making sure the right questions are asked. Governors on both company and school boards should scrutinise performance data, but they should also look at other variables.  While numbers give an indication of performance, they can’t give the full picture. Only by getting to know the school and understanding it as a whole can governors be sure they’re making the right decisions.

Defining roles and having effective conversations

Governors are valuable for their attitude and commitment as much as for their skills. The most expert accountant won’t make a good governor if they don’t go to meetings or take the time to understand the school’s ethos. Equally, it’s critical that the board has effective conversations which harness the expertise around the table. This means that the chair knows their board members, and that the effective pre-work is done ahead of board meetings, enabling decisions to be made which align with the strategy of the organisation.

I’ll be talking about the role of governors and trustees in multi-academy trusts (MATs) at the Academies Governance Conference later this month. MATs have an additional task in needing to define governance responsibilities at member, trustee and school levels through the scheme of delegation. It’s not enough that each person has clarity about their role and knows what’s expected of them; they should also know about what decision making is happening at other levels. We’ve recently launched an e-learning module An Introduction to Leadership and Governance in MATs to support governors new to academy governance, or considering joining a MAT, which is free to complete.

Many of our governors bring a professional business perspective

Sam, a young accountant who we placed as a school governor in his hometown of Warsop, sums up why schools need support from business people: “Many headteachers are career teachers and have worked their way up into seniority from the outset. Whilst they look after the operational side of running a school, they don’t always have a broad range of business skills. That’s why it’s important to have other people working with the headteacher – the governing board – to make sure the school has access to the expertise necessary to make the right decisions.”

In summary

Both businesses and schools stand to benefit from drawing upon the best from the private and education sector. Schools and businesses face similar challenges in governance, and there’s scope for schools to benefit from business input, and vice versa.