Governor essentials

Last updated on 23 April 2019
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School types: All · School phases: All
Learn the key information that will help you get up to speed quickly and make a positive impact in your school.

The purpose of the board

The 3 core strategic functions of governing boards are to:

  • Ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
  • Hold executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the performance management of staff
  • Oversee the financial performance of the organisation and make sure its money is well spent

There are specific responsibilities that governing boards have. For example, you need to: 

See the full list of statutory responsibilities governing boards have, broken down by the different types of school.

Boards must be strategic, and not get involved in the day-to-day running of the school. Learn how to walk this fine line with our practical examples of when scenarios are strategic or operational.


Roles on the board

The core role

For more specific details about what you need to do, take a look at our role description for governors and trustees

Chair

One governor is elected as chair. They will:

  • Make sure the board is effective, and give it clear leadership and direction
  • Encourage the board to work together as a team 
  • Make sure everyone know what's expected of them, and help governors develop their skills and knowledge through induction and training

Vice chair

vice-chair is elected to support the chair and deputise for them as needed.

Clerk

The clerk should be the board's "governance professional". The role includes: 

  • Organisation and administration
  • Taking the minutes of meetings
  • Helping the board understand its role, functions and legal duties
  • Supporting the chair in enabling and facilitating strategic debate and decision making 

Read our article on the role of the clerk to get a clearer idea of what the role involves. 

Link governors

A link governor is a member of the governing board appointed to oversee a specific aspect of the work of the school. It's likely that you'll be appointed as one. Read our one-page summary of what a link governor does, and find advice for your link governor role in our full range of articles.

The different categories of governor

There are different 'categories' of governor that boards might need to have. The different categories reflect how the governor was appointed – they all do the same job on the board. The categories needed will depend on the type of school. Common categories of governor are: 

  • Parent – governors who have a child at the school
  • Staff – governors who are also employed by the school
  • Co-opted – governors appointed for their specific skills and expertise
  • Foundation – governors in foundation or voluntary controlled schools who represent the founding body (this might be a religious organisation)

If you're a governor in an academy, the categories you need to have will be set out in your articles of association. If you're in a maintained school, read more about the types of governors in maintained schools.


Meetings

Full governing board meetings

You'll have at least 3 full governing board meetings per year, where your whole board comes together to discuss the school and take decisions. You'll get an agenda and any other papers you're going to discuss at least 7 days before the meeting. The meeting will usually last around 2 hours, but this will depend on your board. 

You'll contribute better if you're prepared: 

Committee meetings

You're likely to be appointed to a committee. 

Committees are used to manage the workload of the governing board, by delegating certain functions to smaller groups of governors. This allows them to discuss any issues in further detail. There are 2 types of committee governing boards can have:

  • Standing committees, which cover functions like finance, personnel, teaching and learning, curriculum etc. These usually meet once per term
  • Special committees, which are set up and meet only when they're needed to carry out certain functions, e.g., hearing an appeal against an exclusion

Learn more about how committees work.


School visits

Governors should visit the school regularly. This will allow you to see whether the things people say are happening are actually happening. You might go in to:

  • See how a specific aspect of the school works in practice
  • Check progress is being made towards the school’s strategic objectives

Broadly, there are 2 types of visit:

  • Learning walks, where you’ll be taken around the school with the relevant staff member to get a feel for the school. During the walk, you might talk to a range of staff members and pupils
  • Meetings with the relevant staff member, where you’ll sit down and discuss the school’s progress in the area of focus

These can be intimidating, especially when you're new. We've got you covered with our one-page summary of school visits, and our how-to guide to going on school visits


Asking questions

One of your key roles is to hold senior leaders to account for the running of the school. A key way you can do this is by asking good, challenging questions in meetings and on school visits. A good question: 

  • Is open – you shouldn't be able to answer them with a yes or no
  • Usually starts with 'what', 'why' or 'how' 
  • Isn't leading, and doesn't have one specific answer in mind
  • Focuses on the strategic impact of the item in question, not on day-to-day operational concerns
  • Is challenging, but not negative or antagonistic

You can find examples of 'questions to ask' all around our website, for example:

  • If you're thinking of joining a multi-academy trust (MAT), you could ask "What percentage of our annual budget will be taken by the MAT? Who will decide this figure? Will it be the same every year?"
  • When analysing pupil progress, ask "How is progress among pupil groups? What does good progress look like in the school? Are some individuals or groups making better progress than others?"
  • If you've received a GDPR report to governors, ask "Did we have any data breaches? If so, did we expect this number? Could they have been avoided? Was the breach procedure followed properly and were there any problems?

Jargon and acronyms

The world of school governance is full of jargon and acronyms. It can be hard to decipher this language, particularly when you're new. 

Our glossary of governance basics takes you through the different school types, the technical terms involved in meeting procedures and what the key documents are that you need to know about. For example: 

LGB

Local governing body.

In MATs, the board of trustees can delegate governance functions to local governing bodies. They are technically committees of the board of trustees. Their powers vary between trusts.

Quorum

The minimum number of governors that must be present at full governing board or committee meetings for official decisions to be made.  

Articles of association 

Document that sets out the rules for the internal management, decision making and governance of academy trusts. The Department for Education has a set of model articles, and each academy trust will have a tailored version of the models for themselves. 

SIP

School improvement plan.

A document created by your board and the headteacher that sets out the schools priorities for improvement over the coming year(s).

Bookmark our governance glossaries resource hub which contains our full range – we have glossaries for special educational needs, Ofsted, finance and more. 


Getting started as a new governor

Use our induction checklist to:

  • Check what actions you need complete to get to grips with your role as a governor
  • Remind your mentor/chair of governors of any paperwork you haven't received

It suggests some tasks for you to go through in your first few weeks as a governor, including:

  • Meeting the headteacher
  • Booking induction training
  • Completing a skills audit
  • Going through your governing board's code of conduct

Take our free governor induction e-learning

Governor induction is a free e-learning module we've created in partnership with Lloyds Banking Group and Governors for Schools. It's designed for new governors and trustees in all school types and will give you an overview of: 

  • Your role and responsibilities
  • The impact you can make
  • Learning about your school
  • Attending your first meeting
  • Your accountabilities

The course takes around an hour to complete. You'll need to register with Governors for Schools to take it, but the module is free to access. It can be completed on PCs, tablets and smartphones.

Take a look at the training here.

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