Effective governance can have a huge impact on the level of support that school senior leadership teams need in order to raise the standards of education and ensure clear direction in all aspects of school life.
This ultimately improves the outcomes for pupils and so the role of the governor is essential in order to maintain the reputation and high standards of Scotland’s independent schools.
In this blog Gavin Barrie, Governor at Fettes College, explains what his role working at a Scottish independent school involves and the current challenges and opportunities for independent schools in Scotland.
Can you describe a typical day in your role?
Governors' responsibilities include agreeing on policy for the school, receiving reports on how adopted policies are working, ensuring the financial security of the school and that senior management, and in fact all staff, are supported in their roles.
In addition to this, it is imperative that the interests of the young people in our charge are looked after, and as well as their educational needs being met, we pay huge importance to their emotional and physical wellbeing by ensuring all the correct support structures are in place.
What is your current role on the governing board?
As well as being a member of the Full Board, I currently represent the Governors on the Schools Health & Safety Committee, and I am one of two Governors that regularly have face-to-face meetings with both teaching and support staff groups.
I have also recently joined the College Risk Committee, a new role that is interesting and challenging.
Has the role changed – is there more of a focus on safeguarding and wellbeing of pupils and staff?
Safeguarding as a concept has always been part of school life regardless of whether it is in an independent school or local authority school, but the focus on it is much more visible now.
There are many reasons for this, some historical events have brought it to the fore but there are also all the modern challenges the world throws at the young people at our school such as the plusses and minuses of social media and changing attitudes about how individuals choose to live their lives.
There are some big-ticket items in amongst these issues that can be very challenging to deal with. You can add to that, all the challenges our staff have had to meet and continue to meet, dealing with all the pre-existing and more modern issues that both they and the young people they are looking after all face.
Whatever safeguarding issue our young people face will reflect on our staff, and as such it is extremely important that they are all well trained, equipped and supported to do this.
To make sure the Governors are up to date and knowledgeable enough to understand these issues, we all take part in an annual training session and we have a Safeguarding Governor who reports to the Board as a standing item on our Board Agenda.
What do you see as being the main challenges and opportunities for independent schools in Scotland?
I suspect of the many issues facing independent schools, one of the main ones at the present time will be world events and inflationary pressures. From the price of food to feed our students to the cost of energy to keep our buildings warm, there are huge pressures to deal with.
Dealing with all of this and recognising that all the pressures the college faces as an institution are replicated in the daily lives of our staff and parents, and making sure we do the best we can for them is vitally important.
At Fettes, we are very fortunate that all the hard work of our staff sees us practically full as a school. Whilst this is gratifying it also means we cannot offset costs by welcoming in many more students.
One of our opportunities at Fettes is our long-term development plan for the future. Whilst not public yet our still relatively new Head has some exciting plans on the horizon and the Governors are doing all we can to make sure all the resources are in place to allow them to come to fruition.
What was your career journey like? Has your career path helped you in the role of Governor?
Possibly somewhat unusual for a Governor, my career saw me spend thirty four years in the Fire Service, always in an operational role, before being elected to City of Edinburgh Council in 2012.
During my period in the Fire Service, I became a Scottish National Official in the Fire Brigades Union and perhaps this sees me turn from poacher to gamekeeper in my Governor role of staff liaison. It certainly gave me a hands-on approach and I would like to think a knowledgeable view on employee relations and Health & Safety amongst other things.
My time with the Council gave me the opportunity join the Board, as a member of the Education Authority, and with Fettes being in the Ward I was elected to represent I was delighted to put myself forward and be accepted on to the Board.
During my time as Councillor, I had the pleasure of serving as Economy Convenor for the City amongst a plethora of other responsibilities and this also gave me an insight into how important the independent schools sector is in Edinburgh, with circa 1 in 4 pupils attending independent schools.
What would you say to someone considering becoming a governor at an independent school?
Find time to do it. Take time to educate yourself about what the demands are but embrace them and play as full a part as you can manage. My knowledge of the independent sector was far from huge when I put myself forward as a Governor candidate, but there is lots of information online that can help prepare you, and I’m sure most Boards will do all they can to welcome you into the fold.
It is also very worthwhile signing up for courses that are available for Governors on varying aspects of their roles. There will be a lot to learn but the rewards of seeing the organisation, and most importantly the students, flourish make it extremely worthwhile.
What are some of the benefits of being a Governor at an independent school?
For me, the biggest benefit is simply working with people from many different walks of life, who like myself are prepared to give their time, knowledge and energy to see the College remain a fantastic place to send young people for their education.
My contact with staff and Governors is always worthwhile and enlightening, the challenges can be many but with the right team and leadership contributing to the school's continuing success is a pleasure in itself.
Many thanks to Gavin Barrie, Governor at Fettes College for his contribution to this blog.