Caroline Firth reflects on what she gained by becoming a governor at just 21

I’d counted down the minutes to lunchtime yet again. Now I was in the canteen counting down the remaining minutes until I could go home from my dead-end job. That’s when I saw the man who would change my life. He was from SGOSS, the school governor recruitment charity.

It was 2005 and I’d left university just a few months before, aged 21. I was sending at least 10 job applications off per night to try to break into journalism, but in the meantime was working as a debt collector. I was grateful for the work but my heart longed to be fulfilled in my chosen career.

Giving something back

When I met the man from SGOSS I knew I could give something back to the education system I’d just come out of. I also knew that giving my time and skills to others would give me more of a purpose and take the focus off how little I enjoyed my job.

Helping to shape our vision has been a privilege 

I told the man I’d be a governor wherever I was needed and was placed at Kelford School, a school for pupils aged two to 19 with additional needs. It was in ‘special measures’ and – just to add to the challenge – a couple of weeks later I got that coveted job and moved 40 miles away.

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The first time I visited the school I wondered what I'd let myself in for. I’d learned in a classroom, but I didn’t know the nuts and bolts of teaching or understand what SIPs, SLTs and HLTAs were. Even this week, a decade on, I looked at a safeguarding report and wondered what the French term “LA CARE” meant.

But I got into the swing of things as soon as I met the other people on the newly formed governing body. I also went on a local authority (LA) training course to fully understand the role. It was a good job too, as I was swiftly asked to help recruit a new headteacher. We picked an inspiring leader in Nick Whittaker and he carried on with the theme of throwing me in at the deep end.

I was soon vice chair, on the disciplinary panel, on the leadership and management committee scrutinising a huge budget and helping to plan governor training days.

Training

I admit I felt I was winging it a little at first, but as I took on more responsibility I was given further training by the LA and various relevant people, including the school business manager, other governors, Learners First, NGA, other school staff and, of course, the pupils, who regularly gave us their opinions – especially on what canteen dood they didn't like. 

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Since then the political landscape has twice changed dramatically and we’ve needed to think in a different way as a governing body. We entered a federation with another special school, Hilltop, and Nick became the executive head of both schools. He left last year and we have interim arrangements in place while we and other stakeholders explore whether to become an academy trust.

Helping to shape our vision has been a privilege and I’m proud of what we always put at the core of our business – the children and overcoming barriers to learning.

It’s a challenging but exciting time to be a governor, yet when I look back I realise it always has been. We’re constantly trying to improve and I was recently grilled by Ofsted during Kelford’s inspection, for which the school got a rating of ‘good’. Just about every year we’ve seen change and have had to fight for every penny of income in the past five years.

But no matter how much time and energy I’ve put into being a critical friend, I’ve always gained far more. It’s been an experience full of joy.

It’s also good on the CV and I’ve even picked up a few critical friends of my own on the way – 198 young ones to be exact. wondered what I’d let myself in for. canteen food they didn’t like.

Caroline Firth is a local authority governor at the Federation of Kelford and Hilltop Schools, Rotherham, South Yorkshire

This article first appeared in Governing Matters magazine. Governing Matters is published by the National Governors' Association (NGA) for its members. For more information about joining the NGA visit: www.nga.org.uk/join

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