Could You be a School Governor?

Governors' Meeting Angie McKniff has been a school governor for the last 4 years. She has 4 children aged between 13 and 1 year old. They live in West Yorkshire.

She talks to ChristianMums about her role in school.

How did you come to be a governor?

It all started about 5 years ago. The primary school my children attended was threatened with closure. I went from not having particularly strong feelings about the school, to being very passionate about it. A number of us started campaigning, and writing to local counsellors, to try to keep the school open. In the end, we won.

Through that, I began to feel that I'd been given a gift from God to work with children. I had total conviction about that, and I began to follow it. I had a good relationship with the nursery teacher, so I asked if I could offer any help there, and started going in to lessons. I joined the PTFA (the Parents, Teachers and Friends Association) and got involved, and then I began thinking about becoming a governor.

I stood for election as a Parent Governor, but didn't get in, which I was very disappointed about. Then, only a few weeks later, one of the local vicars approached me about being a Foundation Governor, someone who represents the church on the governing body, (It's a C of E school). I accepted, and I've been doing it ever since.

You're governor at a second school as well, aren't you?

That's right, as of about 9 months ago. I received a letter from the chaplain of a C of E secondary school, where my eldest son goes, asking me if I wanted to be a foundation governor, again. I told God he must be having a laugh. My youngest child was only 3 months old. I was looking to cut back on what I was doing, not add more. But God has a "wicked" sense of humour. I accepted, and it's been one of the best decisions I've made. I just have this real sense of peace - of being where God wants me to be.

How do you see the role of the governor?

Basically, we deal with anything that affects the day to day running of the school. We take our lead from the Head, as he knows the school better than anyone, and our job is to support him, but we're certainly not there just to say "yes, yes" to everything he says. An article I read recently described it as being a "Critical Friend", and that sums it up well.

What do governors do - in practical terms?

There's a full meeting of all the governors about every six weeks. On top of that there might be meetings of any sub-committees that you are a member of too. It's up to you how much you take on. You don't have to join sub-committees. I'm on the curriculum sub-commitee, and I'm also the Numeracy governor. I've been in and talked to the teachers about what they teach, and observed lessons. There can be a lot of paperwork to read through.

What skills and experience do you need to be a governor?

You don't need any skills at all! We're from a wide range of backgrounds, and we just bring our life experiences and opinions to the debate. All the governors bring different ideas and perspectives, and that's a really healthy thing. The primary school has 8-10 governors. The secondary school has closer to 25, because it's a much bigger school.

There are training courses that the school can send you on, to give you any necessary information, but the thing you need more than anything is a passion for the school, wanting the best for the kids.

What can a Christian governor offer to a school?

My Christian faith is just me. It's a central part of who I am. It's hard to know what other Christian governors might bring to the role, specifically. I guess one of the big issues for me, as a Christian, is fairness; to the children, to the staff, and to the wider community that the schools are part of.

Redundancy has been the biggest issue I've been involved with recently. The primary school has a bulge going through it. The older year groups have two forms each, the younger ones only have one. So this year we were in the position of needing to cut back the number of staff by one teacher and one nursery nurse. I was a member of the sub-committee that made that decision.

It was very hard, and very challenging, but I would have fought for a place on the committee, if I'd had to. As a Christian, is was really important to me that God was in the middle of that decision. I care passionately about the staff, and the school, and it was crucial that the process was scrupulously fair. I wouldn't have wanted it to go ahead without a Christian influence in the heart of it.

Admissions policy is another example. The secondary school I'm involved with and another school are both close to one of Bradford's more difficult estates. There are various issues between the two schools as to how many pupils from this estate they will each accept. As a Christian, involved in that decision, it's very hard. I want to reflect the attitude of Jesus, embracing and welcoming all comers, no matter what they are like. But on the other hand, it's our responsibility to do the very best we can for the pupils who are already in the school - which already has some behavioural and discipline problems. It's a very hard issue, but it seems to me that it's important that there are Christians at the centre of trying to resolve it - balancing being fair to the wider community, and also to the school.

The call to be salt and light in the world was really crucial to me, when I was praying about becoming a school governor. I guess that's at the heart of what I want to do.

Observing Lessons
What have you gained, personally, from being a governor?

The biggest thing has been knowing that I'm doing just what God wants, being where he wants me. It makes me so content, and there's a real buzz from knowing that I'm doing it well.

I've grown a lot in confidence. I'm fine talking to people one to one, but I've never been comfortable in front of a larger group. Through being a governor, I'm gradually getting better at that. I'm overcoming some of the fears inside me, and my lack of self-confidence. Ever since I became a Christian, I've longed to be able to stand at the front of church, and do a bible reading, but I've always been far too nervous. I'm at last feeling that I might be able to do it one day.

Has it changed how you view your children's education?

Not at all, actually. I tend to think of being a governor and a parent as two roles which I keep very separate. When I'm a governor, I'm a governor. That's it. Some people stand for election because they want to be involved in their kids' education. Many a time I've seen people stand for parent-governor, because they want to do something specific for their child's education, and it's almost as if they want to spy on what their child is doing. I'm completely the other way about. If there is something being discussed which effects my own children, I tend to back right off, because I feel that I'd be biased. I'm harsher, if anything, with things involving my own kids, so as to be seen to be fair.

The secondary school, where I've only recently started as governor, might work out differently. It's a school with a number of behavioural issues, for various reasons, and as a governor, I'm seeing warts and problems which I never saw just as a parent. I'll have to see how things develop.

The whole insight into how the education system works is fascinating, though.

How else can parents support their children's schools, if being a governor isn't for them?

It can depend a lot on your school. Some are more open than others to letting parents get involved. Offering to read with children is often welcome, or going along on days out, as an extra adult. Most schools have a PTFA, which works to support the school and organises fundraising activities. They always welcome new people coming along, with ideas, or just to help out with the practicalities of running events. PTFA's can often be quite small groups, and new people are always welcome to share the load.

Perhaps the best thing to do, if you want to support the school practically, is to go into the school office, and ask who they suggest you talk to. Requests for help often crop in school newsletters as well, so that's worth keeping an eye on, or talk to a teacher you get on well with.

What do your kids think of you being a governor?

When I became governor at the primary school, I didn't really asked the kids what they felt about it. With the secondary school, I did ask my eldest if he was happy with the idea. He's fourteen, and since the age of seven, he's never wanted to tell me about what he does at school. I used to talk to his best friend's mum to find out about school trips and things like that. I've had to learn to respect that. It was his space, and I didn't want to encroach on that. So when I was asked to be governor at his school, I asked him how he felt about it. If he hadn't been happy, I wouldn't have gone ahead with it. But he just said, "Oh, it's up to you, Mum" What fourteen year old cares that much what his mum is doing anyway!

For another thought provoking read about being a school governor, read our linked article Being_a_Change-Activist_School_Governor, by Mike Simmonds from CARE for Education

Interview by Claire Cullingworth