“We want to show that governance can be fun, it’s worthwhile and it’s not rocket science.”

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Just a few years ago, there were no podcasts about school governance.

These days you can tune into really insightful conversations about governance from some of the leading organisations in the sector such as The Key (whose podcast series we wrote about here) and the National Governance Association.

But the newest podcast for school governors, The Governors’ Podcast, is probably best described as ‘from the ground up’. It’s hosted by Sharon Warmington and her daughter Olivia. 

Sharon is a governor, trustee, clerk, governance expert and the founder of the National Black Governors Network. She’s also a long-time champion of diversity on governing boards (something we spoke to Sharon about in 2018). 

We caught up with Sharon recently to find out more about her latest venture and also her thoughts on diversity in governance – a topic which has moved firmly into the mainstream since we last spoke.

Sharon, where did the idea for the podcast come from and what are you hoping to achieve from it?

The idea came from my daughter Olivia – she’s my partner in crime. She’s a governor and she really loves the role even though when I first suggested it she said, ‘Really Mum, why would I want to become a governor – they’re all old and white. Why would I want to do that?’ and I said, ‘Because we need people like you’.

So she’s loving it and embracing it and she’s wanting to change the perspective and the look and feel of governance and to show people that it’s not boring, it’s not a burden, it’s not hard and that you can learn, grow, develop and contribute.

We were talking just before Christmas and she said, ‘Why don’t you do a podcast?’ and I thought, hang on, ‘Why don’t WE do a podcast, I’m not doing it on my own’. She said ‘OK then, we’ll try it’. We’re both entrepreneurs, we’ll come up with an idea and run with it – if it works, great – if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.  

The podcast is simply a conversation between two governors about our experiences of governance. We want to pull back the layers to show that governance can be fun, worthwhile and that it’s not rocket science, it really isn’t. Yes, it’s obviously a very serious thing – but when you’re in those situations, funny things can happen. We’re also trying to overcome some of the myths and barriers around governance.

The First Agenda Item (the first episode) is about ‘Being the only one in the room’ – my first thought about that would be race. But Olivia said no, from her experience it’s about age. When we started to explore it further, we realised it could also be about being new – so, for example, it might be that you’re the only one in the room who doesn’t know where the Headteacher’s office is or you’re the only one who doesn’t understand what ‘gag funding’ means.  

I listened to that episode and I really liked that you also urged new governors to get stuck in as soon they can.

Yes, if you get stuck in, the easier it is and more engaged you will be. I found that when I was first a parent governor, I had a role: training and development, but this was the early 2000s and governance wasn’t really the same as it is now. I would go to the meeting and come home and I found it quite isolating. I was determined that if ever I went into another governing body role I would get more involved.

We’ve created the podcast to be able to explore the realities of governance. The next podcast is about what sort of questions to ask. I ended up flipping this around because sometimes we need to ask ourselves the challenging questions:  ‘Am I fully dedicated to the commitment I’ve made? Am I attending the meetings? Am I reading the papers? Am I doing what I should do as a governor before I go into that space and ask questions of senior leaders? Am I doing my job properly?’

We don’t plan the podcasts too rigidly. We’ll choose a topic and we’ll each think of a few key things to talk about and then we go for it because we want it to be real, not scripted.

There is so much about governance that nobody ever mentions. When you talked about how it can feel if some governors hang around at the end of the meeting and you wonder what they’re talking about, well, I’ve been there and it made me smile.

The thing about leaving the meeting after it’s finished just happened to come up in conversation with Olivia. I didn’t know she’d experienced it too and was thinking the same thing. That was fairly light-hearted but sometimes it’s in the talking that you get to see and reflect on things. 

Ultimately I suppose we will have guest speakers but we do want to keep it fairly easy listening – so you won’t need a pen and paper next to you to make notes. We want to produce something people can engage with, identify with and ultimately we’d like to raise the profile of school governance.

You’re co-hosting with your daughter who’s in her 20s and you’re promoting the podcast on Instagram. Are you using this as a way to try to engage with a younger audience?

Absolutely. All of the social media stuff is down to my daughter. I turn up and record and that’s it. She does all of the editing and all of the publishing. If you want to do anything digitally – just ask someone in their 20s because it’s their world. Their speed of implementation is just off the chart. It’s gone from an idea at Christmas to where we are now. 

She’s put it on Instagram. She told me Twitter is for old people! [ laughs] … she’s worked out that governors are on Twitter but the prospective governors, the young people – they’re on Instagram.

She’s seeing governance through the lens of her 27 years and I’m looking through the lens of my 52 years and we’re coming together in that space. She’s a governor in a selective school and a state school and I’m currently in a primary school. We’re covering a lot of aspects of governance.  

I find there’s real value in listening to other people talk about their experiences of meetings. If you’ve only ever seen your board in action, you can worry that your governors are not being effective, not doing the right thing.

Yes I think that’s right – sometimes you want reassurance that your board is doing things properly. I’m on a clerks’ group on social media and I see a lot of questions from clerks asking if their boards are doing the right thing. Being able to hear from other governors about how they are doing does help.

It’s important for non-governors too to hear about what it’s really like. The preconceptions about what governance is can be a barrier. Our third episode is about the time commitment of being a governor – and if they tell you it’s just three meetings a year don’t believe them! [laughs]. We talk about the realities of being a governor in the UK.

We first spoke to you about race in 2018 when the National Black Governors Network had been established for a year. Since then, and mostly since last summer, a lot has changed. Diversity (or the lack thereof) is now a mainstream issue. How have things changed for you?

I think the most significant change has been that people are coming to us, rather than us trying to raise the flag and get people talking about it. It’s almost like the switch has been flicked. People are seeking out help, information and knowledge. Schools are asking for help now to address a lack of diversity and it’s been refreshing. It no longer feels as if we’re trying to force an issue. 

We’re looking for equality. Women didn’t get the vote without men’s support, they needed men to believe that women should have the vote. It’s the same here. For there to be equality – we need white allies to open up those doors so we can come in and take our seat at the table.

The good news is that once you start to look at diversity through the lens of race, you will automatically and positively impact all of the other aspects of diversity such as gender, disability and age because you go from tunnel vision to a much broader perspective.

Young people also need a seat at the table. What they lack in experience, they bring in terms of knowledge of the digital age and recent experience of the education system. 

You only have to think of the current generation of primary school children. Even those in schools which aren’t very diverse – they’re still living in a digital world which, by its very nature, is global and diverse.

**

Listen to the podcast here.

Find out more information about The National Black Governors’ Network here.

The Key is currently working with the NGA to conduct research to better understand why some groups remain underrepresented on school governing boards – you can read more about that here.

You can also find out more about how the National Governance Association is championing diversity in school governance here.

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