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Has your board ever considered recruiting former students?

| 9 minute read

Gadsby Ellie modifiedEllie Gadsby is a 24 year old trustee at Northumberland Church of England Academy Trust, an 9 school multi-academy trust across south east Northumberland.

Ellie joined the first cohort of solicitor apprentices in the north east with the help of a careers officer at school, and, having kept in touch with staff, is now bringing her insight and life experiences to inform the leadership at trust board level.

We caught up with Ellie to find out how she came to get involved and the impact she feels she’s been able to have.

Ellie, you’re probably one of the youngest trustees we’ve come across at GovernorHub. How did you get into the role?

Well, I had no idea what the role involved or how it worked initially but the trust’s Director of Governance, Lesley Dalby, approached me about the opportunity. As I use to attend one of the high schools in the trust and have come back each year to talk to students for the careers open day, so I still have links to the school.

What was your first thought when she approached you?

My first thought was, ”I don't know if I'm qualified enough to do this!”.  Then I was worried about whether I’d have the time as I’m very busy at work and didn’t want to take on a new responsibility half-heartedly. But I have to say that managing the time commitment has been ok so far. My firm provides staff with two days worth of volunteering a year, so I have the support to take on the role which is good.

How long have you been on the board of trustees and how have you found it?

I joined in September 2022, so I’ve been on the board for about a year and a half now. There’s definitely a lot to learn! There is so much that goes on in the background of school life that you have no idea about when you’re at school. I would have experienced a policy change maybe as something ‘new’ being introduced into school life, but I had no insight into how it came to be. Also, there were a lot of different acronyms to get used to, so it’s been a big learning curve. 

Have you found your voice on the board and felt able to contribute?

I definitely found the first few meetings a bit daunting. There are a lot of experienced professionals on the trust board who know what they’re doing and have been in post for some time.

For me, it’s been about finding an area where I can add value. I’ve certainly been able to bring insight into how students might feel in school nowadays. With support from Lesley, I’ve been able to speak on the social, emotional and mental health challenges young people face - especially since COVID, as that’s something I can relate to more closely.

For example, when the board is thinking about changes that will impact pupils - or discussing exams and assessments - the board makes a conscious effort to gain my perspective. It’s been five or six years since I did any kind of school exams but I’ve taken exams as part of my training contract and I remember just how much pressure I felt.

One thing I felt in school was that I was doing exams simply because I had to - but I didn’t have any longer term goals about what I wanted to do in life until the last couple of years. In my case, it was the school who supported me in thinking about my career and introduced me to the new solicitor apprenticeship scheme. Where our schools are based, there’s a real need to focus on social mobility and to raise pupil aspirations about where your exams could take you and to think about professions you might not have considered. I can relate to a lot of these issues.

Young people are also more anxious post-COVID which is certainly something the media has also picked up on. I really relate to that and I’m able to give the board a bit of a steer on what challenges young people are facing. 

Do you feel still part of that generation to an extent?

Definitely. I started my training contract when I was 18 so I was at work when the pandemic hit. Initially, I’d be in the office every day and taking exams in person but we switched to completely online throughout the pandemic.

Working remotely and attending university via video calls completely changed the working environment for me. Some parts I preferred and some I didn’t but I do understand that sense of how things were before and how they've changed.

I’ve missed out on a period of development at work that’s hard to catch up on in terms of client contact. A lot of trainees pre-covid would go to face-to-face client meetings all the time. Even if it’s just taking notes, you’re physically present in the room and it’s just not the same online.

So I have more challenges in the workplace and I’ve missed out on certain key experiences compared to those who’ve been at the firm longer and weren’t training throughout covid. I think it's the same for some of the students in the school. They had a period where, for two years, they weren't really in the school environment.

Students may not have the same skills, experience and in some cases confidence that they would have otherwise. I think some of the students are in the same position as me where they’re trying to catch up on some of the things they missed in those two years. 

Some schools have talked about a breakdown in the social contract between home and school, since the pandemic.

It’s an interesting one. I think there are a lot of challenges now. I think it’s also dependent on where schools are based and the kind of challenges your families and communities are now facing. 

In the next few years it'll be really telling when some of the students who had their education interrupted by covid get into the workplace and possibly some of the longer lasting effects that might become apparent.

Would you consider yourself a social mobility trustee then?

Social mobility is already a key focus for our trust and we all get involved in this aspect. We do have link trustees for certain areas but for other things everyone contributes and feeds back.

I’ve been back to my old school every year since I left to do the careers fair and careers days, just because I think it is important to  show the students what they can do, no matter their background. I was raised in Ashington, where the school is based, in a single parent household. My mum did really well for herself but she didn’t follow the traditional university route or anything like that - but I was lucky enough to have her constant support.

In some ways it could have been quite easy for me to shy off going to university or doing an apprenticeship, especially following a career in law which is quite daunting as I didn't really know anyone else that studied law. 

What made you do it given those sort of barriers?

I’d spoken to our careers officer at school and he was really helpful and actually found out about the solicitor apprenticeship which inspired me to apply. I was in the first cohort in the north east to take part. It’s great because you don’t have to worry about going to university and getting into debt and not being able to get a training contract or a job at the end of it. My mum also really wanted me to do the best that I could.

Another big factor was that the school really paid an interest in me and my future career which is probably why I wanted to join the trust board and pay it forward in some way. If I can even help even a handful of students in the same position that would be incredible.

Do you have friends who you've told about the trustee role?

Yes I do. Generally they ask how I have time to fit it in and I explain that it’s not too time consuming. Most of my friends have never heard of the role and wouldn’t know how to get into it. Without Lesley approaching me,  I wouldn't have known that it was a possibility and I probably wouldn't have gone up and asked about the role.

I think that's probably why it is quite hard for younger people to get involved. Not only that lack of awareness but we’re also busy at the start of our careers and the additional work might seem like a burden before you understand more about it.

Would you recommend other trusts do what Lesley, the governance professional, did and consider recruiting alumni to the boards?

Yes, I think it's so important to have that young voice on a board. Lesley is really good at trying to make sure there are a range of voices being heard. 

We've got people from different backgrounds with different areas of expertise. I think most trust boards probably need someone to do some form of headhunting, even if it's recruiting from different schools or making use of the talent that comes up through the schools.

If there’s a student that’s gone on to do something beneficial and they return as a governor or trustee it might help when trying to raise aspirations in the school community. It’s probably quite good future proofing as well. Normally, I might not have considered doing something like this for 20 odd years but I do have the skillset to make a difference - and as I’ve already started at a young age,I can grow with the role as I develop in my career.

Have you taken any of the skills from the trust board back to your day job?

It’s definitely helped with my confidence, to be sitting around a table sharing ideas with other professionals. Speaking up in those meetings has really helped my development. Doing it for the trust board, where it’s very accommodating, has allowed me to share more ideas at work and just to build rapport with different people from different backgrounds. I probably still need to push myself to be a bit more outspoken in some situations, but it's definitely helped me so far in the year and a half that I've been doing it. 

A note from Lesley Dalby, Director of Governance at NCEA Trust

It's been refreshing to have Ellie on board and see how she has developed over the months, working alongside a very experienced board of trustees, which can be intimidating. She has been an ideal appointment. Being young, locally based and an alumni means the Board has a direct route to the views of our community. It's been very successful and we're now looking to recruit alumni to the local governing boards too. Our aim is to raise the aspirations of our students and Ellie is an excellent role model.

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