“Being that person on the governing board who isn’t too close to the school can be quite lonely.”

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Karen Wespieser is well-known in education circles as a researcher who’s held high-profile roles for NFER, CfEE and as Director of Operations  for the special needs charity, The Driver Youth Trust. Her latest role is as the new COO of Teacher Tapp.

She became a Local Authority governor 10 years ago, fulfilling a lifelong ambition after seeing her dad and grandad go to governor meetings when she was little, “I’ve always known it’s a really important part of community life and a way of contributing to schools in the local community.”

As soon as she knew she’d be hanging around in one place for a bit (following a period of international travel with work), she contacted her local authority to get started.

“If nothing else, they didn’t have to explain all of the acronyms to me!”

Research and a passion for education are big themes here, so –  as usual, we wanted to know more about Karen’s story as a school governor. How has she found it? Has her background in education helped? And what has she learnt? 

Karen, please can you tell us a bit more about your governor role?

Well in fact I’ve just finished my first role as a governor at a maintained junior school. I was quite aware of the Nolan Principles and planned to leave after the (Nolan) recommended 8 years in office but in the term when I was due to finish, we got inspected and were graded Requires Improvement and I just felt that I couldn’t leave them at that point.

The RI grading wasn’t a surprise but I didn’t want it to look to the wider school community that it had happened and I’d left. So I stayed during that period, some of which was really tough.

Last year we appointed a new Headteacher –  which is one of the highlights of any governor’s career, choosing the right Head who can set the ethos for your school –  and it became clear quite quickly, within less than a year of his appointment, that things were back on track. We had an Ofsted inspection last autumn term and we went to Good under the new framework. I felt like, ‘my work here is done’.

In many ways, I’d outstayed my welcome and I felt I ought to move on. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing to have a governor who stays with one school for years and years. 

What was your role on the board?

I couldn’t spare the time to become Chair as I was working full-time and then had a growing family but I was the Pupil Premium lead and, more recently when I took up the role with the SEND charity, I was the SEND lead as well.

Did you use your background in education research in your role as a governor?

It’s certainly something I always shared with the Headteacher. I never pushed for the school to be fully evidence-led or evidence-informed but I was always sharing snippets, reports or summaries with the Headteacher at the very least. 

The Headteacher we appointed most recently was interested in that and sought my opinion based on that. It was never something I foisted on anyone else but as soon as I was asked I was keen to share.

I think probably, I sat back a little – more than I do in my professional life. When I take up a new governing role, whether I would do the same – I don’t know.

It feels like it takes a long time to get to know a school, particularly if you’re not coming in as a parent or staff governor. I didn’t frequently have time during the school day to see the school in action. You’re left with the view you get from the meetings and I had good attendance, but with just a few meetings a term – the learning process is actually really slow.

You mention the journey the school has been on. Did this slow learning process mean that it took more time to get a rounded view of what was going on in the school?

Yeah it really did. I don’t know if it was unique to my governing body – I’m very keen to join another one to find out – but those people who were able to give more time to the Chair, who had also been parent governors at some point, they worked much more in isolation – dare I say in a ‘clique’. They knew stuff that I didn’t know about the school. 

But there were times when my position on the board was useful. A number of times I was called on to sit on panels – either staffing issues or exclusions – because I didn’t have that knowledge. So it’s important that someone has that function on the board but it can also be quite a lonely position.

Has your experience as a governor helped you in your professional capacity at all?

Ah yes completely. All of it works in both directions. I’m sure I’ve got at least as much out of being a school governor as they got out of me. Because I’m an Education Researcher, there’s always a risk that I’m too distant from the classroom and I don’t understand the day- to-day running and feelings of a school. I found it massively beneficial to go into a school at least once a term to talk about the realities and barriers of day-to-day school life.

The other thing I’ve done in recent times is take on another voluntary position for the local authority – on the School Appeals Panel. It’s another opportunity to be involved in schools in a different way which helps to broaden that insight across the local authority. That’s another thing I felt I lacked when I started. Despite being the LA governor,  there was nothing actually I was expected to do relating to that role. But the School Appeals Panel is a different way to get involved in community and education life more broadly.

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