Ashley Innis, chair of governors, Slade Primary School and director, the Arthur Terry Learning Partnership (ATLP)
Helping children to gain life skills and develop as people is something I feel particularly proud of and privileged to have the opportunity to do.”
Ashley Innis is a man with big plans – having been part of the team behind Birmingham’s redeveloped £600million flagship New Street Station and the impressive £150million Grand Central shopping centre. He is currently part of the visionary team driving forward the £500m redevelopment of Paradise Circus.
When he’s not busy helping the city to evolve, Ashley is committed to transforming the lives of children, though his voluntary role as chair of governors at Slade Primary School and as a director of the ATLP Trust Board. Here, Ashley explains how becoming a governor can bring great rewards all round.
Some three years before the opening of Grand Central, Ashley Innis laid the foundations for another ambitious project – to support the development of children, in a non-teaching role.
After visiting the Four Oaks Community Fair at Arthur Terry School, Ashley – who was working in Birmingham City Council’s Cabinet Office – “got talking” to Sir Chris Stone, the then CEO of the respected Arthur Terry Learning Partnership.
“That visit and subsequent discussion were the catalysts for me to find out more: to understand the important role that governors play in helping schools to develop and to consider how my skills and experiences could be put to positive use in that environment,” says Ashley.
But then again, Ashley is not one to shy away from a challenge. As a major projects manager with Birmingham City Council, his role involves overseeing the development a number of landmark developments in the city. His current portfolio includes improvements to the public realm; the ongoing redevelopment of Paradise Circus; and the development of some new buildings on the innovation Birmingham campus, as well as some smaller schemes working with partner organisations. As part of his role in driving Grand Central forward, Ashley led the delivery of the marketing and communications campaign as well as stakeholder engagement – including regular meetings with John Lewis. He concurs: “These are pretty busy times!”
Ashley has successfully transferred his professional expertise in areas such as business planning, and leadership to help make a difference to the children and the community of Slade Primary School, where he became a co-opted governor in 2012.
He says: “I’ve found my time as a governor enjoyable and it has also helped me to develop some skills that I’m able to take into my workplace, as well as enabling me to utilise some of the expertise I’ve developed at work in this role, so it has helped me to develop as an individual.”
When Ashley first took on the role of governor, he was well briefed with information and questions. However, he believes that nothing quite beats ‘hands on’ experience, when it comes to governance.
He says: “The role really involves looking at ways in which improvements to teaching and learning and also the leadership of the school can be made, working alongside the headteacher and the senior leadership team.
“It also involves understanding the school, the areas of strength, the areas where improvements can be made and, also, the important role schools and education plays in helping children gain key skills for life. I play an active role in contributing to the development of the school. I also became a member of the pay committee which is responsible for pay and performance of staff at the school.”
Across the ATLP multi-academy trust, volunteer governors are required to attend two and a half to three hours of meetings each half term, which cover all elements of teaching and learning and managing the school. As “critical friends” governors strive to help schools improve performance and raise standards by providing support and challenge.
Ashley says: “Governors play an important role in the development of their school, to do this effectively requires a proactive approach. This involves supporting and challenging decisions made by the school leadership in the appropriate way. Governors are expected to hold the school leadership to account and to ensure that all decisions taken consider the impact of decisions so that they help to make the school a better learning environment.
“The role of governors is not to interfere with everyday life, but to provide the appropriate guidance for strategic decisions. This doesn’t mean agreeing or disagreeing with everything at meetings, it involves working in partnership to ensure that informed decisions are taken, that appropriate and progressive changes are made, and when a decision is taken, that the school and staff within receive the full support of the governing body.”
The last four years have been a real learning journey for Ashley: he’s worked alongside fellow governors, Slade headteacher, Helen Hastilow, senior leaders and colleagues on the Arthur Terry trust board, to successfully help navigate Slade through a transitional time.
He says: “I’ve had some challenging times as a governor, our school and governing body have gone through a period of change, which at times has been difficult; but we have a strong leadership team and governing body who are pulling in the same direction to make Slade a fantastic school for all the children that come here.
“I believe I’ve helped the school to make good decisions, to think holistically, and to ensure that we keep children at the centre of our decision making. I’ve met with Ofsted in my role as chair and overseen the appointment of new staff and leaders. I’ve learnt a lot about the school, the children and communities we serve and I’ve also worked with some fantastic staff who are really passionate about what they do.”
Ashley was elected to Slade’s chair of governors in 2015. In addition to attending and chairing regular local governing body meetings, his duties now include attending the ATLP trust board meetings as a director of the partnership, and meeting regularly with Helen and the school leadership team. As chair, Ashley is also responsible for developing Slade’s governing body and it’s here that his well-rounded people skills come into play.
Ashley says: “The role of chair involves far more: understanding the school, supporting areas of the curriculum, supporting staff, ensuring our school funds are spent appropriately, contributing to identifying how improvements to all elements of school life can be made and also working with the community. More recently, I have also worked closely with middle leaders in the school looking at different elements of the curriculum to see how we can work together to make positive changes.”
Although governance is both personally and professionally rewarding “I’m just a normal person, doing a job I enjoy” Ashley recognises that balancing his voluntary work with a full-time job can be demanding at times and requires commitment – along with support and flexibility from his employer. His ATLP work is done prior to or after his ‘day job’ (this is no mean feat with a new baby in the house) and his employer also provides some time throughout the year for Ashley to carry out his partnership duties.
Those duties include attending meetings and training events – and sharing best practice and support – with other governors from the ATLP’s seven schools, trust board members, and the CEO. They provide a welcome opportunity to: “meet with like-minded people who are also giving up their valuable time to help make improvements and to support the good work that is happening in all the schools across the partnership.”
Ashley adds: “We have an aspiration for all of our schools to be outstanding and this is a milestone we are all working towards.”
Ask any governor what the most rewarding aspect of their role is, and their response will always centre on “the children.” After all, this is what has prompted Ashley and thousands of others to volunteer as governors. As a frequent visitor to Slade, Ashley is able to see first-hand how Helen and her team are working proactively to ensure pupils are happy and progressing in their learning.
He says: “Some of the most rewarding moments are when staff and pupils recognise me and say ‘hello’. This may sound trivial, but I know in some schools governors are just names on a board and people aren’t able to humanise them. But seeing me around school, recognising the support I give and being approachable, is very important for me.
“Another great part of this role is seeing children change and develop. I’ve been into school to talk about some of the projects I work on and having question and answer sessions with the children has been great. I’ve also watched a number shows that children put on at the school and seeing them come to life and ‘perform’ has been really entertaining, particularly for those who at times are shy and reserved.”
And, as Paradise Circus enters its first phase of development and Slade continues to grow, it’s clear that Ashley will leave a lasting footprint on both sites. Just what would his advice be to prospective governors?
He says: “Governors play an important role in helping schools to improve and change, bringing skills or expertise from their outside life – whether this is technical expertise from a profession or the ability to look at situations analytically or from a different perspective – many people have skills that could be valuable to a local governing body.
“What the role of a governor isn’t , is a position of sole power – you will need to work as part of a team to make improvements, be willing to share ideas and listen to others but also ensure that the children of the school remain your focus.
“I’d certainly recommend the role of a governor to anyone who is interested and passionate about positive change. It’s a non-paid role, requires commitment and dedication, but the rewards can be fantastic – helping children to gain life skills and develop as people is something I feel particularly proud of and privileged to have the opportunity to do.“