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Governance workload

Sustainability of governance: your time; your workload


What is expected from governors and trustees has been of huge interest and importance to NGA and the whole governance community for many years. It can’t be so unrealistic that, increasingly, volunteers have to walk away. Sometimes, of course, that will happen, especially where the expectations weren’t clearly set out at the start. Even though it makes recruiting volunteers more difficult, honesty about the expectations from the beginning is definitely the best policy. 

The expectations on governing boards made up of volunteers have been a topic of conversation since governing began, but it feels as though those conversations are happening more frequently now. Recently more than one trustee who has served almost eight years on one trust board has expressed relief to me at stopping when their second term comes to an end. They just don’t have the bandwidth to move to volunteer for another trust, although the sector would benefit hugely from that experience and cross-fertilisation.   


  • "The expectations on governing boards made up of volunteers have been a topic of conversation since governing began, but it feels as though those conversations are happening more frequently now."

    But we don’t want to stir up an issue if it doesn’t apply to many, but this is where our annual governance survey comes in. Up to 2019, we asked each year whether the role could be managed within 20 days a year, as that was the aim for charity trustees. Roughly half of respondents said it was possible, and our additional research with chairs showed just how much more they were volunteering. So we decided the 20 days guideline did not transfer to the school and trust sector. Was that a mistake? – should that still be the aspiration?  

    In 2022, over two thirds of respondents reported that the pandemic has made their governing role more challenging. Our quantitative data also confirms that gradually over time, the governing role is becoming less manageable alongside other commitments. The percentage of governors and trustees who say it is not manageable (just over one fifth - 21%) rose from 16% in 2019. And by definition, this methodology is less likely to reach the really time poor governors and trustees.  

    While three quarters surveyed say that their governing role is manageable around other personal and professional commitments, this drops to 67% of those in their thirties and 64% in their forties. This is despite the fact that those over 60 are more likely to be chairs and vice chairs. The loss of those governing under the age of fifty is also a loss of future chairs.  

    Some years ago, we came up with tips for making the chairing role manageable and that involved more distributive leadership and sharing the tasks to make the communal decision-making more efficient. I admit they didn’t do much to reduce the overall workload. We do face a conundrum here: governing is a team effort and taking the pressure off one person may well add to another’s. 

    And then there’s a dizzying array of important topics the system asks boards to consider. I know NGA can add to this too, e.g. with our Greener Governance campaign. I am completely aware that this might feel like just one more thing to take on and get up to speed with. The whole team at NGA, who govern themselves, do, as a matter of course, think about how volunteer workload might be kept manageable. For example, we don’t subscribe to a link governor/trustee for every key topic. Instead, it can be useful to have a link or two for each of the agreed strategic priorities, which helps focus the board’s business.

    I know it is easy for me to say this than it is to put it into practice. I remain in awe of the hours given by volunteers to their schools and trusts, but this is not just about time; it is also about the weight of responsibility for pupils and for staff. Numbers don’t tell the whole story. We sometimes receive feedback from members that, although NGA encourages discussion of the workload and well-being of staff, we have not been as proactive about governance workload and well-being of volunteers. But fundamentally, the ask for the role has to be reasonable for all of you who volunteer. 

    So we are now scoping a new piece of work to consider this proactively and in detail. We are aiming to come up with a manifesto for reducing volunteer workload. And where better to start than with NGA members’ experiences and ideas?   
    So I invite you to join our virtual leadership forums after Easter, when we will consider together how the roles can best be done without expecting the earth. Come and hear tips from others, and share your own. What do you want NGA to be doing and saying on your behalf?  

    Leadership Forums  Date
    MAT (Trustees & Local Governors)  

    Tuesday 18 April  4.30 – 6pm 

    SAT Governing Boards Tuesday 25 April  4.30 – 6pm 
    Maintained Governing Boards  Thursday 27 April  4.30 – 6pm 

    Please do have a happy holiday weekend. You deserve a break as much as the next person. All the very best from all of us at NGA and we look forward to listening to what you have to say after the Easter holidays.

    For an update on governance workload, read the latest Governing Matters magazine article: Where does the time go?

    Emma Knights OBE
    Emma Knights OBE

    Co-Chief Executive

    As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.