For young people up and down the country a new year has just begun, with the school year in September bringing more change in their lives than January. For many children in our parish families this could mean beginning life in one of the over 2000 Catholic schools in England, perhaps at four years old or at eleven with the move to secondary schools. The Catholic ethos, rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ, should permeate all aspects of the life of the school. And as part of those values, we want to ensure excellence and that all our young people meet their potential, achieving the most they possibly can and setting them up to take advantage of available opportunities and make a full contribution during the rest of their life.
These are very challenging times for schools, with greater expectations of teachers and pupils, comparisons made with education systems across the world, information technology changing incredibly fast, jobs being created that were never dreamt of when I was at school, youth unemployment rising and very tight Government funding. We certainly cannot spend ourselves out of these corners and neither can we return to curriculums of old which catered for a very different world than our young people will find themselves in. To ensure our children are equipped to succeed, the day-to-day offer by schools to this generation has to be different from the ones we experienced, yet at the same time ensuring our eternal Catholic values remain at its core. Are you interested in helping Catholic schools rise to these exciting challenges? There is an important role that a lay member of the parish you can volunteer to do – that of school governor.
School governors are often described as ‘unsung heroes’ including by Government ministers. Their work is largely hidden from view. In your parish there will be school governors amongst you who are providing a vital leadership role to our Catholic schools. In Catholic schools, foundation governors – practising Catholics appointed by the Diocese – make up the majority. A foundation governor has a responsibility to preserve and develop the Catholic character of the school, but like all governors, also has to ensure high standards of educational achievement by the children.
It is the role of the school governing body to both support and challenge the school, in particular to ensure the headteacher is held accountable for the education provided. Long gone are the days when being a governor was little more than a cup of tea and a chat about how lovely the school is. Over the years as schools have gained greater independence from local authorities, more duties have been given to governors. Being on a governing body is now much more akin to being on the Trustee Board of a charity or on the Board of Directors of a limited company and Academy governors are now also trustees and directors. The buck stops with the governing body, and while this is a great responsibility, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Just under three-quarters of Catholic schools are rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, but this does leave a significant number requiring dramatic improvement. Playing a part successfully in such a school can mean watching more children each year leaving more prepared to face the challenges ahead. Even outstanding schools require good governance; schools can be quite fragile places, and an outstanding headteacher leaving a school can make it vulnerable, especially where recruiting a Catholic head is difficult due to short supply of good candidates.
Governing bodies are a corporate body, made up usually of between 10 and 18 people, and amongst its members the team needs to have a range of skills and diverse from outside the education sector – such as experience of governance in other sectors, strategic planning, staff recruitment, data analysis, performance management, community relations, problem solving, financial management, premises management, procurement, legal expertise, and many others. Clearly, no one person will bring all of that to the table, but if you do feel you have something to offer and are able to make a commitment, please do consider putting yourself forward to be a Foundation governor at a Catholic school. You can start the process three-ways – have a conversation with the Chair of Governors at the school nearest you, contact your Parish priest, or contact the Diocesan. If you are appointed, you should receive induction training, and the National Governor’s Association publishes a ‘Welcome to Governance’ guide which should be of help in your early days (see www.nga.org.uk).
Emma Knights is Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association and also a foundation governor at the children’s Catholic secondary school