How does it feel to be the one asking the questions when you’re usually the one being held to account?

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Tom Williams, pictured left.

Tom Williams is responsible for operating strategy and implementation at parkrun – one of the world’s largest providers of free physical activity.

He sits on several international parkrun boards, which make decisions affecting thousands of events and millions of parkrunners across the globe.

But he’s also a fairly new school governor…. so how does it feel to be the one asking the questions when you’re usually the one being held to account?

Tom, firstly how did you become a school governor?

I’ve been a parent governor at a school called Rossett Acre Primary School, part of a Multi-Academy Trust in Harrogate, for about two years.

Interestingly, and it’s probably one of the biggest observations I’ve had, I did feel that I was too busy and I didn’t want to take on new things, but the school is really important to me and when they advertised for a parent governor, not one parent applied.  I thought that was terrible so I decided that if nobody’s going to do it, I’ll do it. Actually in that process two other people put their names forward as well and it went to a vote, which I was lucky enough to get through.

How has the school and the board adapted to the sudden changes all schools have faced in the pandemic?

Yeah interestingly, so a bit like parkrun – things happened so quickly we weren’t really involved as governors in the closure of the school. A bit like in the parkrun world where we didn’t really involve our non-execs in the various countries we’re in because it all happened so fast and we had to react so quickly. Whereas in the re-opening of parkrun, we’re involving the boards in various countries much more, as we’re in control of that time frame.

Our next school meeting is coming up and this will be an online video meeting.

In your role as Global COO at parkrun, you’re an executive member on several parkrun boards. How does that experience inform your role as school governor?

So my previous board experiences are entirely within parkrun but we have some quite significant boards which make quite significant decisions. The board at parkrun Global for example, the UK-based charity which oversees parkrun everywhere in the world, has trustees and an executive team who make decisions affecting over 2,000 events and 7 million parkrunners. 

There’s that all the way down to the board at parkrun Sweden – almost a group of friends meeting, less formally, every few months – and then there’s everything ‘board-wise’ in between. Although my board experience is entirely parkrun, it’s international and varied.

What I feel benefited us most over those 8 years of sitting on various boards is where somebody with a different set of experiences to us on the executive team has spent time learning, offered insight and made us think differently.

When they understand that we have the knowledge of the day-to-day business and they don’t and that their role is to offer insight, different angles and stimulate thought – as opposed to coming along and telling us how to do it and we’ve had plenty of that too!

Have you been able to bring that insight to your school governing board?

I hope so. I’ve tried to be incredibly respectful to the teachers. A huge eye-opener for me was how complex running a single school is. It’s easy to go into it thinking ‘I oversee over 2,000 events in 22 countries, how hard can running a school be?’ I was there for an hour – and I realised it’s as complicated, or even more so as I don’t really know anything about teaching.

I’ve tried to really listen and just say, have you thought about this? And not push back when teachers say they have thought about this, because they’re the experts and I’m really not.

Possibly where I’ve added some value, for example, has been helping the school to move their parent surveys online. At parkrun we have to do an incredible amount of things at scale and keep them really simple. I suggested using a Google Form for the parent surveys, which can be shared on social media and the data recording and analysis is done for you, but it’s still safe and secure. So there’s some of those processes that I hope I’ve helped with.

Another lesson I’ve learnt at parkrun is that it takes many, many, many years to get decent change to happen and you need to be patient – so it might be some time before I can really help with this sort of thing but I’m keen to help the school, which is now part of a group of schools in a MAT, learn how to share resources in a way we’ve had to at parkrun. 

Most of our communications team is based in Twickenham and they’re actually able to produce newsletters and blog articles for parkrun Germany and parkrun Japan. It actually really helps the teams in those countries because producing good social media content is quite a hard thing to do. But I’m trying to push for people to understand the benefits of being part of a big group of organisations. At parkrun, we’ve tried to centralise as much as possible and to benefit from the knowledge of others.

In governance, we talk of ‘getting the right people around the table’ and diversity is really important. Is your board representative of the school’s wider community?

Yes, I’d say it is but we don’t have a particularly diverse community. Off the top of my head, it’s probably more female than male, there’s a reasonable age range and experience range. 

A really big thing for me is parental engagement, particularly from dads. I see a lot less engagement from fathers typically. So much could be solved in schools if the parents were more engaged. Parkrun is only successful because we have 20,000 volunteers a week – from whom we benefit from around 50,000 hours a week from volunteering time given to parkrun and it allows parkrun to function. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get parental engagement up from single figure to double figure percentages in schools? I think for me, there is something really powerful in the future of schools if we could do this. There seems to be a culture of parents thinking,‘you’re the teachers, you’re the school, you get on with it’. I think that’s a shame. The more we can get parents involved in tiny little ways it could really help.

Finally parkrun is incredibly successful at recruiting and engaging volunteers. What can schools and governing boards learn from this?

Yes I think there’s something really powerful there. If we have learnt anything from parkrun over the last 15 years it’s been that we should celebrate volunteers for giving amazing things, doing incredible stuff and being wonderful. But we shouldn’t credit them for giving anything up – because ‘giving up’ is a negative thing. That old narrative of giving up your time, doing your bit, paying back to the community is the wrong way to talk about it. It guilt trips people into volunteering.

We should talk about ‘giving your time’,  and it is really important that it’s celebrated, but at parkrun we’re very careful not to say not ‘giving up your time’ – because I don’t feel people are giving up their time. We’re all getting something out of this.

Declaration of interest: Jo Phillips from GovernorHub is an avid parkrunner and volunteer!

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