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Governance remuneration: A penny for your thoughts

Sam Henson explores the debate around governor and trustee pay - as raised in our 2023 governance workload report.


The role of unpaid volunteers has long been a defining feature, setting school and trust governance apart from most other public services. It is something we at NGA are proud of. As in the charity sector, the governing community largely do what they do out of a desire to make a difference for children and serve their communities, without drawing much, if any, attention to themselves.

Our recent governance workload report has an entire chapter dedicated to this topic and explores the context and arguments for and against remuneration. Yet the public often has no idea just how much governors and trustees do, free of charge, often at a considerable cost to themselves. The notion of payment has long been a point of debate, but we have always felt the response to the debate has been conclusive - there is little desire from those governing to move away from a voluntary role.  

Volunteering is the act of doing something good for others without reward. Well, financial reward. Most within the governance community would rightly argue back against the idea that volunteering as a governor or trustee is about doing something without being rewarded. The majority (we hope) would say they enjoy it, at least sometimes, while others might point more to the knowledge they are giving something back, making a real contribution to helping realise the potential of younger generations. 

Yet, we have to confront any changing of the tide openly. NGA is committed to evidence, not assumptions.



NGA members have historically opposed payment for volunteers on governing boards. However, we are open to the fact that the winds of change often blow in life. Our survey results reveal that while a majority of volunteers still oppose payment (48% against, 40% in favour), a significant shift is occurring, especially among those in leadership positions. Over half of chairs or vice chairs believe that the option to pay all governors and trustees should exist. The evolving sentiment within the volunteer community and the education sector at large demands a re-evaluation of the longstanding stance against payment.

The idea of compensating governance is not new; it has been suggested for a long time, often as a solution to recruitment challenges and a means to attract skilled individuals to school governance, but without any evidence to draw on.

Exit interviews with volunteers revealed initial support for payment, only to be retracted due to fears of attracting individuals with motives misaligned with the essence of governance. The latter was a big issue when we last held focus groups on the topic.

Advocates for payment argue that a form of financial compensation could enhance the professionalisation of the role, attracting individuals with the necessary skills and experience. Moreover, payment might address the issue of under-representation from certain demographics, fostering a more diverse and inclusive governance landscape.

But we all know it is no way near that simple – just the idea of a small form of financial reward poses ethical challenges, not to mention where on earth payment would come from when the public sector overall is reeling from real-term cuts over a sustained period. Others would also point out that we are currently dealing with a bigger crisis – just the ability of schools and trusts to recruit and retain staff- and that additional funding must be targeted in that direction.

 The potential dilution of the altruistic motivation of volunteering itself also poses a significant risk of some, if not significant, numbers of experienced governors and trustees resigning out of principle and fear that recruitment could become financially motivated. Financial implications would also give rise to administrative complexities.

I’ll put our cards on the table. NGA has always been and continues to be a huge advocate of the voluntary nature of governing boards.

A tentative conclusion has emerged from our workload report: the transition to paid governance duties, certainly at this point in time, lacks sufficient justification and transparency and, crucially, research on its potential impact. The financial burden it could impose on the education sector and the potential pitfalls of motivation and accountability raise concerns. While the call for payment reflects the evolving dynamics of school governance, the delicate balance between acknowledging the value of volunteer contributions and addressing the challenges they face remains formidable.

But we want you to engage with us on this as the debate unfolds for 2024 and beyond. As much as taking a temperature check on pay, we want to give you a platform for a fair discussion that also helps us concentrate efforts on understanding the most important factors in finding and retaining a sustainable and very large group of volunteers. To do that, it is vital that NGA keeps our finger on the pulse, as we have done with the workload report.

We want to hear again about the motivations for people volunteering. If you want to join us and point to the need for change, that the volunteering nature and levels of commitment needed for governance have now gone too far – please do! Or if you are passionate about the counterargument – it’s the very voluntary ethos of governance that makes it so special and unique and that aligns with a public service ethos, and introducing payment might alter the nature of the position – join us!

The discussion is far from over, and the education sector must navigate these uncharted waters with careful consideration and a commitment to maintaining the integrity of its governance system – if you have something to say, join us for our Governance Leadership Forum on 8 February at 16:30-17:45  for what is set to be an intriguing debate  - to pay or not to pay?

Sam Henson
Sam Henson

Deputy Chief Executive

Sam oversees NGA’s policy, communications and research services, supporting NGA to achieve positive change in the policy of school governance. He is the policy lead for NGA’s work on the governance of multi academy trusts.

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