“I don’t think I would have felt as happy to write about education if I hadn’t also been a governor.”

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Fiona Millar outside William Ellis School in London where she is about to step down as Chair of Governors.

Fiona Millar is a journalist and education campaigner who’s been volunteering for nearly three decades as a school governor in Camden.

As she prepares to step down for a long overdue break, we’ve been asking Fiona how she got started, what she’s enjoyed about it and why everyone, especially politicians and policy-makers, should consider taking up the role.

Firstly Fiona, how did you become a governor?

Well, it was in 1992 and my eldest son had just started primary school in Camden, and there was a parent governor election. I was very busy with my career at the time, and I thought I ought to stand because it would be one way I could find out a bit more about what’s going on in the school and meet people. So I stood and I got elected.

Was it becoming a governor that led to your interest in education?

Yeah, I think so. I mean – I was a journalist at the time and I still am a journalist – I’m not an education professional. Then of course I went to work at Downing Street when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and I carried on being a governor throughout that whole time.

At the end of that period I wrote an article in The Guardian, in response to somebody who’d written a piece saying why he was taking his child out of state school to send them to a private school, and, as a result of that, I got asked to make a film about ‘parent choice’ for Channel 4 when I’d left Downing Street. After that I got the column on The Guardian and so I went back to journalism but specialising in education issues.

What sort of insight has being a governor given you into the school system that you might not have had otherwise?

Well, I really don’t think I would have felt as happy or confident to write about education in the way I do if I hadn’t also been seeing it through the eyes of people who have to deliver the service on the ground. The thing about being a governor is you get to see what the big political messages are, the policy announcements, in the context of the real world, and sometimes that’s quite an uncomfortable fit. So it grounds all of your decision-making and makes everything you hear about education, such as announcements about funding, relevant. 

On that note, how have you found being a Chair in the time of COVID-19?
Well it’s slightly complicated by the fact that I’m standing down at the end of this term and the Headteacher is also leaving. So it’s really quite strange as it means I haven’t seen him for three months and it’s normally quite a close relationship. 

Yeah it’s been very difficult not being able to go into school, but we’ve managed pretty well in these online meetings and in some ways, it’s made people more succinct and focused – which can only be a good thing

Schools had to switch to remote learning pretty quickly – and boards had to support schools from whichever starting point they were at. Has that been an issue for your school?

We’d already gone down the road of using Microsoft Teams for learning and homework – so we were quite advanced in those plans. Other than that, I don’t think we’ve had an experience that’s any different to anybody else’s, which isn’t necessarily about the school or the staff – it’s about the ability of young people to access online learning in what are a very, very diverse group of home settings. Very, very unequal frankly.

I mean, that’s the bottom line. We have a very unequal society – and I think that’s been played out – that’s been writ large – in the course of this crisis.

When you talk about the relevance of being a governor, I read so much rubbish in the papers about education, what teachers are and aren’t doing, written by people who don’t really understand the language they’re using. The truth is you can’t do online lessons for children who don’t have an internet connection. So that is a huge problem and that is something that needs to be urgently addressed.

Would you encourage anyone writing about education to take up the role? It’s an insight it’s almost impossible to have otherwise?

Yes, definitely, and we could do with a few more politicians who’ve been school governors as well. I think governments want to mandate everything from the centre and the truth is nothing works in terms of delivering a policy unless you trust people on the ground to do it properly.

Trying to tell everybody what to do is never going to work. You’ve got to set some ground rules and then give people the space and freedom – and trust them – to do what they know is best for their local communities and their students.

You began the role in 1992 – why are you stepping down now?

Well, I’ve been a governor in three different schools, all quite different in a way; two secondaries and one primary. I’ve been a Chair of two schools for ten years each consecutively. I think for the school where I am chair now it’s time for them to have new leadership – you can only do it for so long. Personally, I’d quite like to have a bit of a break from the chair role but I will be continuing as a governor with fewer responsibilities for a bit longer.

I think there’s a big difference between being a “back bench governor” and being a Chair. The Chair has a lot of responsibility and it really is like a part-time job. I felt that very strongly and I take it very seriously. It has taken up a lot of my time in the last 10 years. 

What would you say have been your highlights in the role?

I think the most important thing any school governing board can do is appoint the right Headteacher for your school. Finding the right person for the right school and making it work is hugely satisfying – not just in a personal sense but because it’s also a hugely important leadership role in the local community. I’ve been involved in that process several times.

I think at a time when people feel relatively unable to control what’s happening around them and in society in general – one way you really can make a difference in your local community is by joining a governing board. At times I’ve found that to be extremely challenging and I’ve also seen the good side and it’s extremely rewarding.

It is an invisible role though, would you agree? How can we raise the profile of governors?

Well I think we could do with some more high-profile people taking up governor roles and talking about the importance of it. I think that’s partly because the people who make policy very often haven’t had the experience of being a governor and if they had they would include it in their thinking and their rhetoric.

I always tried to remind people – it’s 300,000 volunteers who are the backbone of our school system carrying such a lot of responsibility. When people talk about school leadership, it isn’t actually only about the head, it’s the head and the school governing body and ultimately it’s the governing body which bears the responsibility for the school. They appoint the head and hold the head to account.

We’ve seen that even more acutely in recent times as governing boards try to plan risk assessment and re organise schools?

It has been a huge burden on Headteachers in particular and I feel some of the way they’re being portrayed is extremely unfair. Unless you’re actually involved in doing it, you can’t see how stressful and complex this task is.

Your whole life is devoted to standards and progress and all these various different metrics and suddenly all that gets blown out of the window and yet you’re still having to deliver the same standard of education in almost impossible circumstances.

It’s quite a lonely job anyway – but even more so in these times – which is why the relationship between the Chair and Head is so important. I do regret it hasn’t been possible for us to meet in person to offer the support we usually would in times like this.

Too often the role of Chair is overlooked. Managing that relationship with the Headteacher is critical to the success of the school. As a chair you also have to build a good team of governors and make sure they can work together – just like schools do.

I always say to new governors, “Know when to intervene. Intervene on the things that matter not on the things that don’t matter.” Governors can spend quite a lot of time getting involved in things that aren’t their responsibility. The day-to-day running of the school is not our responsibility. Our job is to keep that big picture in sight – share a vision of what we want to achieve and how we’re going to do it.

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