‘What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.’ (Aristotle)
As someone who finds it difficult to say ‘no’ when asked to assist fellow professionals, I have found myself with a range of voluntary roles to accompany my headteacher one, including one as a trustee with an academy trust. Like many senior leaders, we try and help out however and wherever we can whilst benefitting from these valuable experiences that help to colour our own day job.
For those true volunteers, their commitment is solely down to a determination to support the common good, or as David Cameron called it, ‘the big society’. He was on to something, was Dave.
As a new headteacher back in 2002, I will never ever forget my first Chair of Governors, Bob McKean, who sadly died some years ago. He was the most wonderful man, a true gentleman and such a support to me as I muddled through that first year or two. Bob would leave his meetings with me and cheerfully drive off, first to mow the lawns of his local church grounds, and then to man the phones for The Samaritans. He had such energy.
He sought neither money nor status, simply the company and the satisfaction of having contributed to his local community. Together, we took great satisfaction in improving the school and building a wider consensus – always asking ‘what kind of school do parents want?’. He remains a great inspiration to me.
I mentioned my role as a trustee for an academy trust. It appears that many of the problems surfacing within trusts up and down the country have, at their root, a failure to recruit people of the calibre of Bob, or indeed recruit any at all. Huge responsibilities, under company law, lie with one or two people, who are unpaid and heavily reliant on the chief executive and a central team. No wonder Lord Agnew, the minister in charge of school systems, is concerned about it.
Ah, systems. Once again, a over-inflated belief in systems is compromising the work of schools and the ability of teachers to make a difference. Trusts are increasingly directed, as part of ‘the system’, to recruit academy ambassadors or national leaders of governance in an effort to provide greater oversight. Once done, this gives the impression that the problem is solved. This may well be the case, but crucially there appears to be a growing gulf between school/trust boards and the communities in which the schools sit. This reduces the amount of local intelligence that is brought to the table.
Bob’s strength was that he knew the local community, and the local community knew him. There was an implicit trust between all parties. The community knew that they could leave it to Bob to provide that carefully nuanced level of accountability to a raw, enthusiastic, but inexperienced new head.
Anecdotally, it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit governors at school level. Yes, other professionals in the system are being recruited (with folk like me saying yes when asked), but this is not local accountability. If then their power is neutered by a board of trustees at academy chain level, will this inevitably put more people off?. Meanwhile, trust boards become more and more disconnected from their community. And this was precisely what policy-makers wanted to increase – local accountability.
I’m neutral on the academy issue – they are neither the panacea raising all boats, nor the thousand-toothed monster cleaning out our public realm. But one thing is clear, local accountability appears to have been weakened in some schools.
So we need to value our local volunteers more. Because more people firmly committed to their schools, their only motive a desire to enrich the common good, will benefit all regardless of which structure they choose.
Thanks Bob for all you did for me, and thanks to those Bobs up and down the country, freely giving up their time to support the next generation of senior leaders.