Naeem Younis applied to become a school governor via Governors for Schools in late 2018 and was successfully appointed to John Perryn Primary School in Ealing in February 2019. He became Chair of Governors at the school in early 2022.
The school has a high proportion of students for whom English is an additional language at 69.5% of all pupils, and a higher-than-average percentage of students facing socio-economic challenges, with 38.3% eligible for Pupil Premium funding.
We caught up with Naeem to hear about his experiences of becoming a Chair of Governors.
What motivated you to become a school governor initially?
I wanted to give something back and had been reflecting on how I could use my skills to help the local community. Education has always been my passion and I firmly believe that the building of better societies and communities all starts with good education and life opportunities for our young people, regardless of their background.
My role as a governor gives me the opportunity to apply my skills and knowledge in a way that improves these opportunities through education. I was particularly pleased to become a governor at John Perryn Primary, as I could see myself in the students having attended similar schools and I felt the school aligned with my own life experiences.
How were your early experiences in the role?
Joining as a school governor from the private sector without any educational or wider industry experience myself was quite challenging. The first eighteen months were spent trying to get my feet under the table and develop my own understanding of what being a good governor means. It was a process of familiarising myself with the language and landscape of education, the peculiarity of some of the bureaucracy, and the limitations and constraints that this can cause.
Once I overcame these hurdles, I found the role was much simpler than it is sometimes laid out to be. For me, lots of it comes down to asking questions to yourself, the board and the school such as: Do we have a clear view of what good education is? Do we have the right staff in the right places? Are we showing the pupils the art of the possible and broadening their horizons? Do we have a full understanding of the differing needs of the students attending our school? And are we delivering for all, or just for some?
If we can satisfy ourselves that we can see affirmative answers to these questions, we can be confident we are serving the community effectively.
School governance is not a typical board executive role. While there are some similarities in terms of the strategy and assurances you have to put in place, there is more coaching and mentoring involved. This particularly includes building effective relationships with the headteacher.
When was it first suggested you might take on the Chair role – how did you reach this decision? Did you have any concerns before putting yourself forward?
I had a conversation with our outgoing Chair who had been in the role for a significant time and he asked whether I’d be interested in taking on the role. My first response was that I didn’t think I had the time and it wasn’t a decision to take lightly due to the significant time commitment. I also had to ask myself if I believed I was a good enough governor to make this step up into a leadership role on the board.
For me, I was swayed by the fact that as Chair I can be central in making a difference, as I would have greater involvement across the school, helping develop agendas and having the ability to ask more questions. I was confident that if I got the mechanics of the board right with a good set of governors taking on different responsibilities, then we could make a real difference to the school.
I also knew that if I wanted to make a difference then having a strong relationship with the headteacher is key, and as Chair you have to be confident you can make this relationship work. Early on in my governance role we had recruited a new headteacher which has proven to be a good decision. I felt we were aligned and would be able to work together to make a positive impact on the school.
How were your first few weeks as a Chair – what were your initial priorities?
When I became Chair we were still in recovery mode from COVID-19, with students starting to come back in person full-time. As such, there was a lot to be done at the operational level.
A key area for me was in getting the basics right. Are our governance structures correct? Do they give us effective oversight of the school? Are we looking at the right priorities, at the right time, with the right skills to make a difference? And do we have a good sense of what the next twelve months look like and where we want to be?
I held conversations with the senior staff at the school to get to know them better and become familiar with their ideas and priorities, as well forming my own ideas of what is important with the board and aligning these with the school development plan and vision for the school. Alongside this, I had to continue developing my relationship with the headteacher, challenging and supporting them in equal measure.
What are your priorities as a school in the months ahead, and in your role?
Now that we have an excellent senior team in place, it’s about growth, development and how to we elevate the school in terms of educational equality across the board. We’re lucky to have really excited governing board members who have a sense of optimism about the journey the school is on, despite the challenges we face in terms of finance and demographics of the school.
As a school we have lots of transient children and many from refugee families. This contributes to the high percentage of students for whom English is an additional language. As a school and board, we are constantly looking at how we can work around these constraints, how we can think differently about meeting the needs of all of our children creatively, and how we can help them reach their potential. This extends beyond the curriculum into how we can best engage parents and the wider school community to bring them on this journey with us.
Given only 4% of Chairs of Governors nationally are from an ethnic minority, why do you think it is so important to have strong diversity present in governance?
I think one of the dynamics we need to collectively ensure is that governance boards are reflective of the communities they serve. Until we get to this position, we are losing strength in our governance structures. People from different backgrounds will have different perceptions of what is good and what is possible and can offer these into debates and discussions which adds significant value. Having the cultural understanding of your community is important in building an effective relationship with it, and this all contributes to knowing what will produce the best outcomes for the children attending the school.
A diverse board will create a healthy tension, encouraging debate and improved outcomes over time.
What would you say to someone thinking about taking on a Chair role on their board? Top tips?
Firstly, think about how you can you work with the other governors around the table and the headteacher. Do you think these are relationships that you can nurture and develop to work collaboratively?
Secondly, just do it – give it a try. Before you do that, make it clear to yourself that governance is a long-term commitment. I don’t think it’s fair to the school to take the role on and then disappear shortly afterwards.
Thirdly, walk before you can run – make sure you have the building blocks in place with the board and school in terms of structures, delegation, responsibilities, and knowledge.
The key thing at the end is to know and understand the children and the families that you are serving. Ultimately, they are what it is all about.
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