At our recent governance professionals network, we were joined by two experienced governance professionals who shared their journey and development in the role. Becky Poynter is head of governance at Unity Schools Partnership and a National Leader of Governance and Carina Sawyer is head of governance at Magna Learning Partnership.
Tell us about your governance professional career
Becky: I absolutely fell into this role. I started out as a parent governor around 12 years ago. I had quite a lot of committee experience, I'd done a bit of work in HR, I'd been involved at university in the student union. I was also a school secretary in a very small primary school. And all those things came together. After four years of being a governor, I was the relatively new chair at a school which went into special measures and the headteacher left. It was probably the steepest learning curve I've ever had. So I became completely immersed in governance at that point: we came out a special measures within 15 months. We'd worked very closely with the local authority and it was their advisor who suggested that I become an NLG [under the previous programme]. From there, I became an advisor to the local authority then in 2016 I was invited to join a MAT to advise them as a consultant on governance. My post was reviewed and now I am head of governance as the MAT realised that having a consultant for a couple of days a week was not enough. Now I'm undertaking a course on corporate governance and getting a huge amount out of that and benefiting from learning about governance from outside of the education world.
Carina: Back in 2006 I started clerking maintained schools and that number grew quite quickly to about eight at one point. I also undertook specialist work for the local authority and the diocese, things like admissions, exclusions and complaints. I led training, wrote guidance documents and did a bit of consultancy work for schools that were that were struggling. Over the years, I've worked with primary, secondary and alternative provision schools and I also built up quite a bit of local knowledge. In time, I applied for and was appointed clerk to the trust board of a small MAT. And then in 2018, I became clerk to the board of trustees and company secretary of another MAT – at first part time then following a re-evaluation I am now full-time head of governance. I did a level three clerking programme a few years ago now, I also keep my specialist knowledge up to date and I've done company secretary training as well. I'm just about to embark on a post graduate course because I want broader, more strategic governance experience. I'm very interested in educational governance, but I want to see what I can learn from elsewhere.
What changes have you seen over your governance career and how have you managed them?
Becky: The role has definitely changed – when I first joined that MAT it had nine schools and I was specifically asked to work with three where governance was considered to be not up to par. We now have 30 schools. So it's a very different role, and it has to be much more strategic. It's a bit sad in a way because I don't have those personal relationships that I had with the headteachers or the chairs or the individual governors. Now I have 300 or so governors who are really enthusiastic and I have to try and manage that. One of the things I've learned over the last 18 months is that we must be brave, we have to be really committed to our long-term strategic goal of improving governance, and you have to have difficult conversations. That's been my biggest challenge – so I encourage other governance professionals to get some training on difficult conversations, practice them and talk to yourself in the mirror so that when you're going into those meetings you know what you want out of that meeting, and without trying to be confrontational, the best way of moving forward.
Carina: For me it's trying to keep pace with the guidance documents, the briefings and the good practice that is coming out. It's useful and it's interesting, but I need to find a few moments every day to read that. Trust growth necessitates structural and system changes. So just when we think we're there, we evolve more. The role itself is no longer, for me, about drafting agendas and managing meetings – I still do that for our trust board because I choose to, there's great value in that for me – but equally, it's around making sure we function well across the tiers of governance. I now have much more of a focus on compliance as well as recruiting to and leading a team of clerks. The other big change I'm starting to see is around stakeholder engagement and the development of civic responsibilities. We need to recognise that often a trust is a large employer in its area – we need to work out how we're reaching into our communities and getting to know them.
What would you advise new clerks to focus on?
Becky: Having the ability to informally share information is valuable. For me, governance is crucial but it can feel lonely. So having informal groups and forums where you're not reinventing the wheel, and you can share advice and expertise is really helpful.
Carina: It can be very lonely: you report to the chair and you’re not directly accountable to the CEO but you’re often trying to hold leaders to account hence it's very much around building relationships and gaining their trust.
Congratulations to Carina and Becky who were recognised for their excellent practice at NGA’s Outstanding Governance Awards 2021.
NGA’s new Learning Link modules provide the perfect introduction for clerks who are new to their role.