What makes an effective governor? An interview with Stuart Lester

Dr. Sue Robinson

Good governance is at the heart of effective schools. To find out more about what is essential for a governor to know and act upon, I asked Stuart, one of the most effective and experienced governors I’ve met. Stuart first served as a parent governor in 1993 working with a head teacher he described as:

‘Massively supportive of my time as a governor, (and) remains the most inspirational person I have ever worked with. I think that above all is what hooked me into being a governor and gave me confidence to realize it was something I could do well and make a positive contribution.’

He has been chair of governors of four schools and is currently chair at two schools in Barnet, London. They are The Hyde, an Elliot Foundation academy, and Summerside, a Community Primary School.

What makes an effective governor?

Stuart began by suggesting some characteristics of an effective governor.

They should have ‘an open minded enthusiasm and a commitment to the education of other people’s children.’ He believes it is very important as a parent governor to be able to:

‘Distinguish between the interests of your own children and the other 400-500 children in the school’

This involves understanding that governors are part of a team with collective responsibility.

Tact and honesty are important, especially for chairs of governors

‘You have to be prepared to say what you think or believe, but you have to be careful not to offend other’s sensibilities particularly other professionals and the head.’

Governors have to be:

‘Inquisitive and willing to learn because, unless you are from an education background, working in a governing body is, from the outset, a completely different world from anything else in business. There’s a new language to learn and people relate to each other in a less competitive and more mutually co-operative way.’

Governors need:

‘Integrity and judgement, particularly as they find themselves dealing with some very awkward situations’

Governors have to be ‘highly visible but not obtrusive. Governors have to be seen and they have to be heard.’ Being known in the community fosters the building of trust over time.

Making ‘education speak’ accessible to all is a role for governors in their community. Stuart is critical of the use of ‘Ofstedese’ in the language used to describe education.

‘It’s a limiting language with very few adjectives and simplistic judgements. Governors mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that way. I find it quite dispiriting at times that people think in terms of OFSTED. The school has to fit at least ‘good’ to tick a box for Ofsted. I don’t want schools to be just ‘good’. I want the schools to be exciting and stimulating places where children learn and ideally the place of choice for parents. It is a joy and source of satisfaction when you realize how much our schools do achieve in challenging circumstances, despite the little credit they sometimes get for the contribution they make to the lives of children and young people.’

While noting that ‘governors have enormous influence’ Stuart uses a phrase to describe the position experienced chairs enjoy. They are ‘partners in leadership’, a phrase he cites as being used first by the ‘Department’ (DfE).

I definitely know Stuart to be a ‘partner in leadership’ and he exemplifies Lord Nash’s recent observation: ‘voluntary does not mean amateur’.

The Role of School Governing Bodies Second Report of Session 2013–14 Volume II (July, 2013) accessed online 18th March 2015

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