Fundamentally, I thought it would be interesting!”
Jonathan Brake started as a parent governor at Hill West Primary in 2005 – the same year his daughter started in reception at the school. Eleven years on, and as his now teenage daughter is in Year 10 at Arthur Terry School, Jonathan is still helping to influence decision-making at the school and beyond.
Here, the principal rolling stock consultant, discusses his “fascinating” voluntary work as a governor, chair of governor and trustee, and why would-be governors should “just do it!”
Why did you become a school governor?
My eldest daughter joined Hill West, so I wanted to be involved with the school – to understand better how the school worked and why it worked as it did. I wanted to gain an insight into her education as she progressed. Plus, I wanted a more strategic input in to the direction of the school.
What did the role entail?
The role of a parent governor is to be a representative parent rather than a representative of the parents at the school – albeit, it is always useful for the governing body to be aware of the feelings amongst parents. However, the role is of any other governor – to know the school; to support the school and the head; to challenge the school on the way it works, the targets it sets and the results it achieves; to set the strategic direction.
During his time as a parent governor, Jonathan held positions on Hill West’s LGB’s finance and estates committees. He was then elected to vice-chair, before becoming chair of governors and converting to a community governor at the same time.
What does a chair of governors do?
The key role of chair is to lead the governing body and harness the individual talents of the governing body. The Chair needs to ensure that the workload is evenly distributed and that everyone’s views are considered but that agreement is achieved. A significant difference is that the chair has a much closer working relationship with the head. The chair acts as a sounding board for the head to help ideas develop. It is useful for the head to go to the governing body with plans that are fully developed, but also with a good idea that they will gain approval.
Once the multi-academy trust (MAT) was formed and Hill West joined, then the chair is also a member of the trust board.
What is the time commitment?
Initially, it was three meetings per term with some additional pre-reading and occasional working groups. As chair there were additional regular meetings with the head and regular email/telephone correspondence – sometimes it would be quiet and other times busier.
Why should somebody become a governor?
The key requirement is enthusiasm and interest in the school. For a parent governor it is also necessary to be able to say something benefits the majority of students and should be done, even though it does not suit my own child. A governor needs to be able to think, take advice and take a decision. But, importantly, governors act together, not individually, so it is also important to be able to work as a group.
Crucially a governor needs to be discrete – there are tough decisions to be made at times and the governing body needs to stand behind those decisions collectively. They may also impact friends’ children.
The governing body needs to have a broad base of skills within it as a whole. Most people will be able to bring something to the group.
What is the most rewarding part of being a governor?
Knowing that you can make a difference and that you are part of the moving the school forward. It is also nice to be in the know! I have always found being allowed through the door marked ‘private’ to be particularly fulfilling.
…And the least?
There are moments where agreement is difficult or a tough decision or challenging conversation is needed.
How does being a governor in a MAT differ to being a governor at an individual school?
Because we have strong local governing bodies in the MAT, there is not as much difference as you might expect. Our LGBs have a lot of autonomy on how they run their schools. They are, of course, accountable to the trust board for their budgets and outcomes! The MAT also manages many of the school policies and systems centrally so that also relieves some of the burden on the LGB which can now concentrate on outcomes.
How important is the twice yearly MAT training and meeting up with other partnership governors?
The main value though is three fold;
- It is a good forum to present a consistent message and to brief everyone about current educational change and policy and MAT direction and priorities
- There is the opportunity to share experiences and to learn from each other. Each school does things slightly differently and their LGB have a different mix of skills. Sharing these experiences allows everyone to learn
- Finally, there is significant responsibility on LGBs and it good to hear others understand your concerns. It’s good to feel supported by others
Jonathan enjoyed three-and-a-half successful years at the helm of Hill West’s governing body, during which time he helped to manage the school’s conversion to academy status and its membership of the ATLP. Jonathan stepped down as chair in 2013 and as a governor in 2014 Once he was confident that: “many of the fundamental changes to local governing body structures and processes were in place.” And after he had supported a new and equally dynamic chair into the role.
However, Jonathan wasn’t away for long and he was soon persuaded to return to the ATLP as a trustee on the Trust Board – a position which he accepted readily. He says: “I’ve always been a strong supporter of the ATLP and missed the involvement with it!”
Describe your trust board role
I’m not associated with any particular school, so don’t need the same in depth commitment to one school – my role is more about the overall performance and strategy of the MAT as a whole.
The board sets the overall vision and direction and monitors performance at a high level. The board’s overall role is to ensure that the MAT itself is a success as a whole. The board must ensure that schools that need specific support can get that support ideally from within the trust itself.
The trust board monitors budgets and outcomes, but delegates responsibility for managing them to the LGBs and headteachers.
How does your background in governance support your current role?
I understand the basics of how schools work and how the LGBs work. I have a feel for the pressures. I also understand the terminology and the systems. This means I can be better involved where needed and have better understanding of the context of discussion and reporting.
What have you gained during your time with the ATLP and its schools?
I have learnt much about education and schools. Particularly about the pressures our students and staff are under. I have picked quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of running schools – the legal, financial and procedural stuff. I have also learned some about managing and dealing with people. Governing bodies have different personalities and people need to be treated differently. It is also necessary to allow people to come their own conclusions and agreement.
Have you any advice for someone thinking about becoming a governor?
Just do it! It’s fascinating, rewarding and a brilliant way to contribute.