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A Failure of Governance

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Simon Dalrymple, funeral director and (reluctant) Chair Of Governors, parked the Nissan Qashqai on the drive and fiddled in the dark, trying to find the keyhole for his front door key. It was showing 9.13pm on his Fitbit as he entered the living room, smiled meekly at his long-suffering wife Christine, and dumped a selection of bags and files on the living room table. “I’ve reheated the fish pie a couple of times love but it should at least be warm” she smiled with the resigned look of a wife, for whom the microwave had replaced her husband in the familiarity stakes.

It was a Friday evening. Literally half an hour later, Christine lovingly removed the glass of Pinot Grigio from her dozing husband’s grasp and suggested he accompany her upstairs, or run the risk of spending much of the night horizontal on the DFS sofa (bought “before the sale ended” in 2004 – the sale actually didn’t end). He mumbled an apology and dutifully followed her to bed.

Nine hours later, Christine stirred and from habit wished her dearly beloved a “good morning.” At that point she realised she had sole occupancy of the divan. It was 07.36 on the LED display of the bedside alarm. Perhaps he had taken Mitzi out before the forecast snow arrived. Perhaps he was in the cellar on the cross-trainer, doubtless watching another YouTube video on leadership versus management. Either way, she needed coffee before unravelling seventy metres of Christmas lights. She wrapped herself up in her velour dressing gown and headed for the kitchen. To her surprise (but sadly, not shock) she found Simon sat at the table with a cafetiere of coffee and the last remnants of an Irish sausage barm cake (insert bread roll descriptor of choice here folks).

“When did you come down?”

“Around half-six love.”

“But it’s Saturday!”

“I know love but it’s that appeal at the school in Higher Dalton on Monday. You know, that complaint I investigated in the autumn.”

Christine, long suffering governor-widow and even longer suffering funeral director widow, opened her mouth to say something distinctly uncomplimentary, then bit her tongue. As she always did. “The favour you did for the Diocese you mean? The complaint they said would take you a day to deal with but actually took you six?

“You remember love?”

“Of course I remember. I had so looked forward to that concert in Manchester. To have to cancel was so sad.”

Simon felt the usual pangs of guilt. Here was a man whose work dictated he spend at least forty to fifty hours per week tending to the needs of grieving families. His commitment to school governance had stemmed from, like many colleagues, a deep desire to contribute something to the school that had served his, now adult, children, so well. But somehow, he had been proposed and duly elected as Chair two years ago and there was literally nobody else on the board who could bail him out. His predecessor had been a hands-off Chair, allowing the Head free reign over the school and hence, it was no surprise that OFSTED concluded this was a school where leadership was not afforded sufficient challenge and hence required improvement.

Simon, whilst lacking confidence, embraced the inspection outcome and threw himself into the recovery mission, on occasions to the detriment of his family and relationships. He galvanised his colleagues. He modernised processes. He professionalised meetings. He instilled a culture of learning and development. He was the driving force in changing the fortunes of St Hilda’s CE Primary School, Pottleham. The inspectors were much kinder in their assessment of the school at their subsequent graded inspection twenty months later.

Simon was quickly identified as a steady hand. A calming influence. A wise advocate. A man with a highly developed emotional intelligence and an acute sense of right v wrong. Increasingly, both the local authority and Diocese would e-mail or call him. “Can you have a chat with a Chair who is struggling?” “Any chance you could meet up with the education director who wants to run an idea past you?” Have you a couple of hours to deliver a brief session to an inexperienced board at Little Swanton?” Simon Dalrymple, funeral director and governance stalwart agreed to them all. His rationale? All schools had children who deserved of his best. It was the least he could do.

Christine Dalrymple, bereaved wife of funeral director and governance stalwart Simon, stood tearfully at the grave of her beloved. She removed the decaying funeral flowers from the headstone and replaced them with some fragrant purple freesias. She dried her eyes and reflected on how lovingly Simon’s former colleagues has tended to her husband’s final needs. How well attended his service was and how the Headteacher spoke so movingly of his commitment and service to the school. Sadly the Diocese and local authority could not be represented. She pondered further on the post-mortem that said it was very probably a hereditary heart defect and could not be attributed to overwork and stress with any certainty.

Many of us were sold the concept of governance on the basis of three or so meetings per year and a minimum time commitment. We would be “doing our bit” and using our experience, skills and expertise to promote good standards of education. Twenty years ago, that might well have been the case. In the intervening period, if education has moved on quickly, then the demands and responsibilities of governance have been truly transformed. The expectation has shifted markedly from compliant nodding dogs to perceptive and expert professionals. We are now assumed to be the board of directors of St Hilda’s PLC with the huge responsibilities that accompany that status. Data analysts, curriculum experts, financial assessors, HR aficionados and, of course, safeguarding advocates. Problem is, the workload involved has proliferated as these expectations have risen. This is no longer a comfortable, volunteer role. This is now, for many working governors at least, a second job. With a huge weight on our shoulders. Added to that, ever increasing demands for governors to deal with complaints or grievances, sit on hearings or appeals panels, many of which can take days to resolve. All unpaid, all taking up valuable family time, all, perhaps, affecting the physical and mental health of these noble volunteers.

Make no mistake, this is no clarion call for governors to be paid. I could never endorse it for a number of reasons. However, this country has built a model of education leadership on the cheap. Whilst it rightly remunerates operational leadership properly, it brazenly positions strategic leadership on a wholly charitable footing. Put bluntly, we use and utterly abuse the goodwill and commitment of governors to prop up a system in which we have repeatedly failed to invest sufficiently.

What I am calling for is relatively small, but possibly significant. Those responsible for school governance, starting with the DfE and taking in local authorities, multi-academy trusts and our Dioceses need an urgent wake-up call. Beyond the duties of the board for which a governor is directly attached, there simply has to be a contingency fund to recompense those who devote inordinate numbers of hours to serve the current system. How can it be right that in 2023, a caring governor sitting on a hugely complex staff disciplinary panel has to take a week’s leave (family time remember) from work, to sit on that panel? It is a systemic abuse of their altruism and philanthropic spirit to ask them to travel up to fifty miles per day to attend those sessions with no recompense whatsoever.

Somebody needs to listen to this quickly. If they don’t, we will lose our, possibly burned out, governors with increased regularity. Worse still we might very well see more sad cases like Simon Dalrymple. We give freely. Stop abusing that generosity. Our schools, our children and our families deserve so much better. Our governors most certainly deserve much more.


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