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Neil Willis: North East LEP regional lead and school governor

My name is Neil Willis, I’m the regional lead for education challenge working at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and I am the vice chair of governors at Apple Tree Gardens first school in Monkseaton and now in my third year of serving on the governing body. We have approximately 330 pupils in our school, with a really diverse catchment, which really reflects in our intake.

We have an amazingly dedicated staff team, led by our newly appointed head teacher who is committed to taking us to the next stage of our improvement journey. Community really is at the heart of everything that we stand for at Apple Tree Gardens – we recognise that school provision is not just about the people, it’s about supporting the families in the area and the wider community.

What made you decide to become a governor?

I’ve worked in secondary education for nearly 20 years and have spent a lot of time working with governors in various capacities, and throughout that time I became very aware of the importance of effective governance and how it really underpins school development. I wanted to upskill my knowledge of younger years education, which links with the mission of my work role, as well as helping to make an impact within my local community and in the North East region.

What skills and experience have you brought to the governing board from your professional background?

My project management, budget management, and team management skills have all come into play in the role, as well as having experience and understanding of the performance measures used when assessing a school. My role at North East LEP means I bring a real understanding of the importance of collaboration and partnerships, whether it’s within the school or with business or other organisations.

What skills have you taken from volunteering as a school governor back into your work setting, and how has this helped you in your role?

Because part of my role is that of school governor champion, being in the role myself means I can encourage others to consider volunteering and offer insight into the role which has led to a dozen colleagues volunteering as new recruits over the last 12 months. I think the role gives me good insight into the developments and challenges in the primary phase of education which helps in informing not only much some of my work, but the work of the wider team too.

What have been the personal benefits of volunteering as a governor for you?

First and foremost, it’s an opportunity to make a positive contribution to a school and the local community. I have worked in education for a long time and when you’re not at the coalface as such, it allows a really nice opportunity to have an impact. It has definitely enabled me to upskill my knowledge around the earlier years of education. I also have a personal interest – I’ve got two children, with one at primary age, so there’s a personal investment for me too, not only for my own children but also other children in the community.

If you could bust one myth about being a school governor, what would it be?

I’m going to cheat and give you two. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that you need to be an expert in education and have a prior understanding of what goes on in a school, which is absolutely not the case! It’s more important that you are interested in learning about the school and education system and there are all sorts of CPD on offer to help you upskill in that space. It’s about your skill set and what you bring to the to the governing body, you definitely don’t have to be an expert.

The second is around the time commitment – my advice to anyone interested in the role is not to let any concerns around this put you off volunteering because it really depends on the role, and how much you want to get involved. From my experience, it’s about how much you have got to give.

Would you recommend the role of school governor to others?

Absolutely, I think there are opportunities for everybody. I think it’s really important to consider what you might bring to a governor role, and what you want to get from it. My advice would be to always visit a school that you’re interested in because it needs to feel right for you and it needs to feel right for the school for an effective relationship.

For people who are decision makers and policy makers in their own businesses or organisations, I think supporting staff to volunteer as governors has benefits that are so much wider than addressing a corporate social responsibility requirement – it’s a really powerful, professional development opportunity.”

Would you like to get involved and help young people get the best start in life? Read more about the role of a governor here.