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'I believe young governors bring ambition and energy to the table'

42 ARTICLE Nick Harrys

Nicholas Harris is a 28 year old chair of governors from Surrey who’s keen to spread the word to other young people about the role and importance of school governance

IMG 5945 modifiedHe fell into it while looking at volunteering opportunities through one of his previous employers, but it’s since become a passion that he hopes other young people will also develop.

Firstly Nicholas, how did you get into school governance? Not many people your age are even aware of it (sadly!)

I was working as a Chartered Accountant (CA) at KPMG where the firm encouraged us to be purposeful outside of work using ‘volunteer hours’ that were available for all staff . I have always been interested in education and its impact so I started to look around at what volunteering opportunities existed in the sector which is where the idea of becoming a school governor came up.

I thought it would be a great way for me to share my skills that I had picked up as a CA within a school environment - being totally naive at the time - I assumed they’d just be transferable but, as you’ll know, it’s not always that straightforward! I applied to a few schools in the community where my family lives and that’s how it began.

I started out on the resources committee, hoping to share my financial skills and knowledge. I then moved on to chairing the committee and subsequently became chair of the full governing board - now in my third year as chair.

Our previous chair was looking to step down and he nominated me to be his successor. I had no idea if I was right for the role or the true extent of what it involved, but I thought I’d give it a go to support the school as best as I could. 

Why did you doubt yourself - was it your age?

I wouldn’t say I doubted myself because of my age, I think my main reservation was whether I would be able to juggle my career and manage the role of chair at the same time. I didn’t want to fall short in either area. Looking back, I suppose I was worried about over promising and then under delivering for the school community. There’s always that fear associated with the unknown. In terms of my feelings of being a young governor, I actually felt that the most when I first took up the role.

As a church school, my induction as a new school governor was an in-person meeting at our local diocesan office. I remember entering the room and sitting with other new governors who were much older than me with a few awry glances and looks. It was amazing how alienated I felt initially…! That’s probably the first time in my career , if I’m honest, where I felt like an imposter - asking myself if I was really meant to be in the room or not.

I quickly learned to not take it personally, there really aren’t many young governors in school settings across the country and it can be a surprise to see someone different who wants to contribute to that space.

Entering my sixth year as a governor, I’ve done my best to champion the role with various friendship groups and colleagues. On my board, we work hard to cultivate an atmosphere where everyone, regardless of their background, can bring their thoughts and challenges so governors of all walks of life feel welcome and able to contribute.

What do you think young governors bring that’s unique?

I’m probably being a bit biased and - using my own perspective here - I feel young governors bring ambition and energy to the table, with a positive drive to change things for the better.

A previous mentor of mine once told me about a great phrase called ‘active inertia’ where organisations follow established patterns of behaviour and work because that is just how it has always been done. It takes new perspectives and challenge to break these patterns for the better. At times this can be scary! But for a lot of young governors, this is exactly where we can make the most impact as generally we’re ok with the idea of positive change. 

How has the role helped you in your career?

People are curious and become quickly interested in the how and why I got into governance. For example, I applied for a role at an American bank this summer and as part of the interview process - they asked questions about being a governor which they’d seen on my CV. A significant amount of the interview was then taken over by talking about the role: what’s a governor, what do they do, what’s the purpose. They were just really interested in finding out more! I was immensely proud to reflect and discuss all the things I’d been involved in whilst explaining the responsibilities of the role.

It's been such a great opportunity to prove myself outside of the workplace. I didn’t choose to be chair, but the opportunity arose, and I took it - and unexpectedly, that’s had a huge impact on my professional career.

Do you think you’ve successfully encouraged others into governance?

Certainly a couple of friends that I’m close to have gone down the same route. I feel I’m now at a perfect point in my governance journey where I can really champion the value of being a young governor and all of its career related benefits - to both individuals and to schools.

What are you most proud of since becoming a governor?

It’s been a tough year as our school’s headteacher left us in December and we were then responsible for recruiting a new headteacher. I’m proud of how our whole board came together and managed the recruitment process from start to finish. It’s a lot of work and pressure as you really want to choose the right person to lead your school. 

What advice do you have for people who might want to approach the chair role?

It goes back to what I said before about that fear that I’d over promise and under deliver - so I’ve done my best to streamline processes as much as possible to relieve any administrative burden.

I broke it down into 3 pillars - tasks for individuals, tasks for the board and tasks for the chair. On an individual level - asking everyone to submit questions in advance of our meetings to make sure everyone is reading up ahead of the meetings was key. It’s also much more respectful of school leaders to allow them to prepare and not just put them on the spot.

Collectively - on policies - making sure it’s clear where any changes have occurred and asking to know what pro forma template it’s based on. That’s where GovernorHub Knowledge has been really useful to us as we can see what good looks like. So it’s about making sure that process is speedy, and we can get to the meat of our meetings.

Finally, as a chair - it’s about driving the right tempo of engagement at the start of each term and setting expectations. Making sure everyone is clear on their monitoring role and purpose - when it should happen and how the information should be fed back to the whole board.

As a chair, things can come up on a weekly basis that affect workload - such as complaints that come in or a teacher leaving. You don’t always have control of that, so the main workload and processes need to be well organised and managed.

Focusing on work life balance has helped people to be much more efficient when they’re carrying out their role.

You mentioned work life balance, how many hours do you think you spend a week on governance?

That’s a great question! This year I’ve been on a sabbatical and doing a Master’s at Imperial College London and we’ve had the headteacher recruitment to work through, so it’s been an unusual one, to say the least.

I’m not even sure I could put a number on it - maybe between 3 and 5 hours a week? That’s at least when I’m, say - in the mindset of being a governor! 

Nicholas was writing up his Master’s thesis when we spoke for his degree on climate change, management and finance.

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  • Josephine Graves 30 Nov 2023, 18:40 (8 months ago)

    What a truly inspiring young man! Thank you so much Nicholas for spreading the word about such a very worthwhile and significant role as School Governor. We do so need more young voices on Governing Bodies.

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  • Alison Godfrey 16 Nov 2023, 10:45 (8 months ago)

    Great to see young talent and energy coming into roles in School Governor which is so important to the success of schools. Well done Nick! Let's hope you encourage more young people to take on this important volunteering role!

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  • Judith Castledine 8 Nov 2023, 10:18 (8 months ago)

    Thank you Nicholas for such a thoughtfully-written and inspiring article!

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