Keith Deane is Chair of Governors at Sir William Ramsay School, a secondary school based in High Wycombe. He joined the school via Governors for Schools in April 2020 in the early days of the Covid pandemic, and became Chair of Governors a little under a year later. Since becoming Chair, Keith has come back to our service to recruit new governors for the school. It is a delight for us as a charity to see people we have supported into governance roles take on leadership roles, and return to us to further strengthen and diversify their boards.
Our two-year governor anniversary data indicated that 9% of governors appointed via our service in the 2020-21 academic year had become Chairs within two years, while 15% had taken on Vice-Chair roles. In September 2023 we launched our Chair Recruitment Service to help schools struggling to find a suitable Chair.
Keith, you initially applied to become a school governor through Governors for Schools. What drew you to a school governance role initially?
There are two things that drove my decision to become a school governor.
Firstly, I had decided to wind down in terms of my own professional career, so I had more time on my hands. I had been interested in becoming a governor previously but did not feel like I had the time to commit. I had always believed I had transferable skills that would suit the role – particularly around leadership, management and corporate governance, the latter of which I had a lot of experience in.
Secondly, I was really drawn to the opportunity to apply those skills to a different area outside the world of financial services and it felt like an excellent chance to give back to my community. Something that very specifically drew me to school governance was a desire to make sure that people of my ethnicity were represented on governance boards as I believed that this was, and remains, a real challenge across the school governance sector.
How was your early experience of the role?
It was slightly surreal, as I became a governor in April 2020 just as the Covid pandemic was taking hold. My first governing board meeting was online and they remained online for the first year. I had met the head teacher in person prior to the pandemic but all the other relationships I built were pretty much virtual in that first year. I was made to feel very welcome as soon as I became a governor. The board were open to questions and challenge about how things were done and I was able to contribute straight away.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much educational training and material was available to governors, with lots of easily accessible information about any area I had questions about, from educational data, to safeguarding and sitting on panels. It felt like a real strength of the sector that this level of support was readily available if you were willing to access it.
I did not have any negative experiences in terms of my induction. I am a naturally confident person so asking questions, challenging and clarifying points around data was not an issue for me.
What are the three things you enjoy most about being a school governor?
Quite a difficult question as there is a lot I enjoy about the role. To break it down into three key facets…
1) Being able to support a head teacher in a meaningful way. I have felt able to give advice, occasionally direction, and provide new ideas and perspectives to their thinking. It has always felt like a collaborative relationship. I have worked with two head teachers now and the relationships I have built with them both have been similar.
2) I enjoy trying to develop a high-performance governance team. It is important to remember that in our roles we are responsible for the performance management of senior leadership within the school, and we should have the same high expectations for ourselves as a governing board. I have had mixed successes with this so far but the challenge remains enjoyable, and something I will continue to work on.
3) While it is difficult to fully determine cause and effect of the decisions taken by the governing board in terms of the outcomes for pupils, it is great to see the positive impact of some of the policies we have helped shape and implement. Governance is naturally removed from direct impact, but if you take a broad look at what the school leadership have done, and how we have contributed to this, then you can find the evidence that what we do is important and does add value.
When was it first suggested you might take on the Chair of Governors role – how did you reach the decision to take this on?
It was in early 2021, so towards the end of my first year in the role. The existing Chair was going to step down, and the Vice-Chair was not seeking to make the step up. There was a general view that I had the skillset and attributes to take on the role. I generally prefer to lead and shape rather than follow, and it felt as if this was something I would be able to do in the role of Chair.
How have you found the transition to chairing the school? What have been your key priorities over the past year?
My priority was setting a strategy for the school and revisiting our vision and values. The school has had some challenging times in recent years, including Covid as well as historic Ofsted results – and as a consequence the senior leadership team spent a lot of time resolving problems, tackling issues and ‘firefighting’. This meant they had had little opportunity to raise their heads and look at longer term, bigger picture, strategic planning, e.g. a 3-5 year vision for the school. I therefore wanted to ensure the school developed this sense of direction. We held an away day with the board and senior team and developed new values and a vision for the school moving forward – a process that was smooth and for which there was a good consensus.
Intellectually, the vast majority of our stakeholders buy into the values and the board and SLT use them as guiding principles to ensure they are embodied in our decision making and behaviour. I have found it refreshing that the board and the leadership team, by and large, live by the values that we espouse, which I found was rarely the case in the corporate world. However, getting all stakeholder groups to buy into the values (in terms of living them) has been a challenge at times, though I know this is something that is common across many schools and organisations.
You spoke about your desire to ensure people from your ethnicity are represented on governance boards. Can you tell us more about why this is so important, and your approach to improving diversity within your school?
My stance is to embrace diversity in its broadest sense; do not just make it tokenistic and a box ticking exercise within your school. Think of it as diversity of thought, experience, socioeconomic backgrounds, neurodiversity, as well as the more obvious ones such as gender and ethnicity.
I do not think there is much risk of it becoming a box ticking exercise for most schools. Such is the challenge to recruit governors, schools do not tend to be saying we need three of X, three of Y and three of Z when it comes to creating their boards. You do need to select people you believe have the right skills and aptitude to contribute to the school but be positive about getting a board that reflects the school community. Take positive action to seek out that diversity. We know it is unlikely to happen without us all trying to make it happen.
As Chair, you’ve come back to use Governors for Schools to find further governors for your board, how have you found that process?
It is a very straightforward and efficient process. The team at Governors for Schools have come up with several strong candidates that we have appointed. It has been easy for me to follow the process, stay in touch with my contacts and to make appointments.
Governors for Schools, when compared to other sources of recruitment we use, has certainly been the most productive for us in terms of securing quality governance volunteers for the school.
It is estimated there are currently between 20 – 25,000 school governor vacancies across England alone. What would you say to someone considering becoming a governor?
I would say that it is a very worthwhile role, and that you get out of it what you put in. It is important to not underestimate the effort required to be an effective governor. It is not just about attending meetings, but being really prepared for them and able to have informed conversations. It is about spending time in school to deepen your understanding and being willing to seek external information, training and data that allows you to better understand your school and role.
If you enjoy being a part of the advancement of children’s lives then it is a great way to do it. I would be lying if I said it was not frustrating at times, but very few roles worth doing are ever entirely free of frustrations and challenges.