The expectation of governors

28 March 2017

Understanding the school

Before becoming a governor most people try to learn as much as possible about the prospective school and the required commitment. This can involve reading the latest annual reports, financial statements, scrutinising strategic and operational plans, and obtaining policies as well as meeting with existing governors, management, staff and sometimes beneficiaries. On appointment this research provides a good indicator of the current state of the school and the new governor will also have an appreciation of its reputation. It can also help to develop the incoming governor’s ideas and plans for influencing the school’s future. If practical a formal induction session outlining the basics of a governor’s responsibilities can also be valuable. 

This process should not cease on appointment. Instead, an effective governor will continue to develop a deeper understanding of the school. This will include developing and protecting the school’s brand over time. Failure to do this and the subsequent reputational risk frequently score highest on school risk registers. As the governor’s term of office progresses this understanding will include an appreciation of the funding position and consideration of the sources of income. The effective governor will contribute to developing a strategy to raise the funds required by the school and diversifying sources of income, where possible. Gaining a good understanding of the core income streams is vital as is an appreciation of the costs of activities being undertaken. Charity Governance 2020 establishes where the money comes from and how is it spent, as well as enabling an understanding of the reasons should expectations not be met.

A well-considered reserves policy

Annual budgets should not be considered in isolation; of relevance are any uncertainties over future income or the risk of unexpected calls on the school’s funds. In looking at future plans, projects or other spending needs may be identified that cannot be met from the income of a single year’s budget alone. The identification of these factors illustrates the importance in having a well-considered reserves policy. Reserves are part of a school’s unrestricted funds that are freely available to spend on any of the school’s purposes (excluding restricted income funds and endowment funds and also normally excluding tangible fixed assets held for the school’s use and amounts designated for essential future spending). Therefore, it may be entirely appropriate for a school to approve a single-year deficit budget in the context of a longer-term reserves policy that is bidding to reduce overall funds.

Governors are not managers...but should be motivated and committed

Governors are expected to use their personal skills and there is a need to be prepared for board meetings. In the UK, the expectation of governors is generally to volunteer time. The time commitment for a school varies depending on the activities of the school and its size. As a guide, many governors of larger charities devote one day per month to their role, for example preparing for and attending board and sub-committee meetings, plus perhaps project visits. Some organisations openly report attendance records by individual governors in the annual reports.

Oversight not management

The degree of oversight rather than management that is required will be largely dependent on the size of the school. A governor of a very small school might take on some of the work of running the school in the absence of paid staff whereas in most schools, the governors are able to delegate operational activities to staff. Most of a governors’ contribution will be made at formal meetings rather than through involvement with staff.

Ultimately the board and its members are accountable for the school’s affairs and this must always include the basics such as compliance with regulatory requirements and deadlines, internal controls and budget monitoring. A well-governed board will ask for evidence that management has implemented these basics, for example, confirmation from management that the school’s annual return has been filed with Charity Commission.

Download the independent schools end of term report.


Charity governance 2020

Effective governance is vital for the charity and independent school sector.

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