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Risks and responsibilities of a governor

5 September 2012

This briefing note provides a broad outline of the duties and responsibilities of being a governor of either a maintained school or an academy and how governors can minimise the risks of a problem arising.

Governors of schools form one of the largest groups of charity volunteers in the country and the benefits to the individuals involve include being part of the community, having a direct input into their child’s education and, for staff, having a voice regarding their employment.

But whilst the benefits of being a governor are numerous, so are the responsibilities and anyone considering becoming a governor needs to do their homework first.

For ease of reference, 'governor' includes both a governor of a maintained school as well as an individual registered at Companies House as the director of an academy trust.

Where does the responsibility for a decision sit?

For a maintained school, the buck stops with the governing body. Even though the head teacher and senior leadership team may run the school on a day to day basis, with the support of the Local Authority, responsibility for what happens rests with the governing body.

It is worth noting that a governing body of a maintained school is technically a company. This enables it to enter into contracts as 'the governing body of Anytown School' rather than in the head teacher’s name!

For academies, responsibility lies with the individuals who are registered at Companies House. They may be called 'Directors', 'Trustees' or 'Governors' but, whatever their name, they are responsible for the academy trust and therefore any academies it supports.

In most cases, if something goes wrong at a school and a claim is brought, it is not brought against individuals but against the governing body if the school is a maintained school or against the academy trust if a school is an academy.

Only in very rare occasions will individual governors be held personally responsible for a decision.

What responsibilities do Governors have?

The responsibilities of governors are wide and varied but include the following:

  • employment of staff (teaching and non-teaching)
  • performance management of head teacher
  • the safety and wellbeing of staff, students and visitors to the site
  • the maintenance of the school buildings
  • the results and performance of students
  • the financial budget for running the school, and
  • the admission process (only for Foundation and VA schools and academies).

Numerous external bodies hold the governors to account, including OFSTED, parents, staff, the Local Authority, the Department for Education and the Health and Safety Executive to name a few.

When would governors be personally liable for their actions?

As mentioned above, in the vast majority of cases, if claims are brought in connection with a school they are brought against either the governing body of a maintained school or against the academy trust which supports an academy. Because every governing body and academy trust are companies, the individuals governors would not be personally responsible for the outcome of the claim.

In very limited circumstances, claims may be brought against individual governors because of their actions. These sorts of claims are vary rare and normally fall into one of two categories:

a) breach of duties under charity law, company law and education law (or a funding agreement for an academy)

Governors have duties under company law and either under education law (for maintained schools) or their funding agreement (for academies). The governors of foundation and voluntary schools and of academies also are bound by charity law. Many of these responsibilities actually overlap but they include:

  • protecting the school budget and only spending it on permitted items
  • taking advice from solicitors, the Secretary of State, the Local Authority or accountants as appropriate and following their advice, and
  • taking decisions that average person would think sensible.

If the governors do break any of these rules, although they would be personally responsible, if they have acted in good faith, immediately taken advice and steps to rectify the problem, they can use their insurance to defend themselves.

b) criminal breaches

It is very rare that a Governor is accused of a crime relating to their role as governor but, if the governor is convicted of a criminal offense, the Governors insurance cannot be used to pay for the legal costs of the claim.

How can an individual minimise the risks of being a governor?

There are a number of documents which governors should read in order to understand their duties and responsibilities and minimise the risk of a problem arising.

All governors should read their governing document. For a maintained school, this will be the school’s Instrument of Government. For an academy, this will be the academy trust’s Articles of Association.

Governors of a maintained school should also be encouraged to read the now-defunct Governernet’s Guide to the Law (now slightly out of date). Governors of an academy should also read the school’s Funding Agreement plus any other documentation between the academy trust and the Secretary of State.

Training for governors should also be considered and run on a regular basis to assist new governors joining to understand their responsibilities and provide a refresher for existing governors.

If a governor believes that a breach has occurred, they should bring it to the attention of the other governors as soon as possible and consider seeking independent advice and, if appropriate, following it.

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