Towards the end of WWII, our American allies had a great idea. In a law known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944), they legislated to provide a range of help to veterans returning from the war. Better known now as the ‘GI Bill’, this legislation provided access to mortgages and business loans, but another significant strand was the payment of tuition and living expenses for people who wanted to return to education.
Now, don’t get me wrong: school governance is not war, and governors are not service personnel. The sacrifice of military service in armed conflict is not to be compared to civic volunteering. But – I suggest this in the interests of discussion – perhaps the principle of giving a small, non-monetary reward to a person who has served their community for some years might be a way of recruiting more governors.
Governors are getting harder to recruit
And recruiting governors seems to be a problem. Particularly in rural areas, the right people – indeed, any people – are getting harder to come by. But even in cities, it is not unusual for a governing board (or ‘local academy council’) to be short on numbers.
There are likely to be many reasons for this. Covid has played its part, as it has in so many aspects of life. The increased rate of death and long-term illness among the over-60s means one formerly rich picking ground is sparser than it was. And general social conditions don’t help. People have to work longer hours, they can’t afford childcare, and so on.
Add to that the increasing bureaucratic load familiar to everyone in education. There’s an awful lot of paperwork involved. And there are also, increasingly, a lot of complaints to deal with. As councils have been stripped of funding and the services that once supported our children in the community have thinned out and disappeared, parents have nowhere to go with their concerns, requests for help, and sometimes their anger, other than to the school itself. Reduced school funding makes all this that bit worse. Against such a background, convincing people to get involved can be a bit of a challenge.
‘We’re not in it for the money!’
I won’t try to win anyone over on this occasion. The internet is full of people telling you how rewarding being a school governor can be – not least the UK government itself. Some of it is a bit gushy, but I’m sure it’s well meant. I’ll only say that quietly doing a bit of good that almost nobody knows about is some people’s idea of an evening well spent.
But could we provide a little incentive? I don’t mean money. That has been suggested in these transactional times, but most governors I know wouldn’t want it. Apart from the feeling that it’s just ‘not right’, paying governors would undermine the role. As volunteers, you’re beholden to no one. You can speak your mind without fear or favour, or sit there in silence, pondering the venetian blinds. If you’re on the payroll, even if it’s subtle, you’re owned, to some extent, and the superpower of independence is lost.
Education for volunteers in education
No, not money. But what about taking a leaf out of the GI Bill’s book? We could offer people who have served a certain length of time as a governor an educational opportunity of their own. This would be doubly beneficial. It would encourage people to volunteer in the first place and add a little fuel to the engine of our communities by enriching the pool of knowledge, skills, and qualifications.
Governors come from all sorts of backgrounds, so the scheme would need to be wide ranging. To start the ball rolling I would suggest: vocational courses, GCSEs, A-levels, and university courses – perhaps a module for every four years served? And, of course, we must add to that those late-lamented evening classes that enhanced and transformed so many lives before they were cut, or priced beyond reach.
Many, when it came to it, wouldn’t have the time or inclination to take the opportunity up, but I predict that enough would do so; enough to make the scheme viable. And the funding wouldn’t all have to come from the public purse. A governors’ education scheme would be a good candidate for partnerships with universities, sponsorship from business, and so on.
It would have the potential to enhance our communities, our civic life, and even the economy, through a cohort of already engaged citizens enjoying a new lease of optimism and energy. We could ask people to come back to their schools and give enrichment courses on what they had learned. Some might even choose to train as teachers.
A volunteers’ charter
And why limit the idea to school governors? The UK is sustained by a gentle-but-rugged army of folk who do stuff for nothing, simply because it needs to be done. They’re hard to spot. They don’t make a fuss. But they’re there: visiting the sick and elderly, volunteering in food banks and charity kitchens, sitting on the magistrates’ bench, picking litter and planting geraniums on mucky urban verges. No one does any of this for a reward, but in a way, offering them education or training would reward us all, not just them. Education is like that.
I’ve been a governor at a secondary school for over a decade, so I may appear to be advocating for myself. But the gears of British politics grind slowly and I’m off soon. So even if someone thinks this is a good idea, it won’t do me any good. But then again it will, indirectly, if it helps bring governors into our schools to support the education of our children, and the future strength and vibrancy of our communities and economy. A rising tide lifts all boats, after all, even a rusty old coaster, bobbing by the harbour wall.