Our CEO Louise Cooper talks about how universities have the power to improve schools both locally and nationally by encouraging their staff and alumni to volunteer as school governors. Louise spoke at The University of Manchester’s ‘Making a Difference’ awards celebrating the success of their school governor initiative, and considers what makes a successful partnership, and the impact it can have. 


Manchester university governor award


University staff and alumni have the skills to make great school governors. Since 2011, over 1000 staff and alumni from The University of Manchester have volunteered in governor roles, giving hundreds of schools across England access to excellent governance. This week, we’re celebrating our partnership with The University of Manchester at their ‘Making a Difference’ awards.

Those working in higher education have first-hand experience seeing how education can shape a person’s life path. Volunteering as a school governor gives university staff the opportunity to influence a child’s life earlier on, helping set them up for success as an adult.

One university lecturer noticed that many young people were coming to university lacking confidence and resilience, making their first year a steep learning curve. Becoming a school governor gives employees the chance to act on these observations, determining how a school is run and where children could be better supported.

But it’s not just schools and children that benefit. Staff and alumni benefit by developing their strategic thinking abilities and making decisions that directly influence children’s lives. From their first day in the role, governors bring their professional and life experience to the table to determine the direction of the school.

One of The University of Manchester’s strategic objectives is social responsibility, of which widening participation plays a large part. By encouraging staff and alumni to volunteer as school governors, the university invests in education, in particular by improving schools in Greater Manchester. Governors bring expertise that drives improvement in schools, making a significant difference to local children’s education.

We work with The University of Manchester to provide increased opportunities to support schools in disadvantaged areas. Many schools would benefit from strategic links to higher education but lack the connections. By encouraging volunteers to join a school board in an area of need, schools benefit from a range of skills and professional networks they may not have had otherwise.

However, setting up a school governor initiative comes with challenges. In my experience, there are three main points universities need to consider to make the programme a success:

  • Is setting up a school governor initiative prioritised at a strategic level and is Widening Participation an important part of the university’s strategy?
  • Are middle managers bought into the benefits of the programme and aligned to encourage staff to volunteer? Widening Participation strategies relies on strong communication and governor initiatives are only a success if people hear about the opportunities available.
  • Is the alumni office linked with Widening Participation? Alumni and employees need consistent messages and action to ensure both know where and how to access information and support.

With these actions in place, universities are in a strong position to drive governor recruitment and make a different to schools locally through employee engagement, and nationally through an alumni network. The University of Manchester was the top provider of governors in the North West in 2018, and was also the leading university for volunteer applications across England. In 2018, the university hosted an event to engage more universities to set up a governor initiative – while leading by example and consistently sharing information about their own programme with other institutions.

We saw the impact of a strong alumni network in March, when the university sent an email to alumni explaining the need for school governors and the difference they make to schools. We saw volunteers of all ages across the country apply to give back to their local communities as school governors. Alumni from as far back as the 1970s received the email, with many citing the connection with their university as the nudge that had prompted them to apply.

Our partnership with The University of Manchester has become our flagship programme for other university partnerships across the country. We’re holding an event in London on Wednesday 8th May to give those who work in Widening Participation, HR, Volunteer and Alumni Engagement the practical steps needed to set up a school governor initiative in your own university.

Register your attendance.