The University of Manchester recently appointed its 1,000th volunteer school governor – the highest number of any university. As one local headteacher explains, even one volunteer can make a big difference.
For just after lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon, St Peter’s Roman Catholic High School is remarkably quiet. On entering the school – one of hundreds across England at which University of Manchester volunteers make a difference to their leadership and direction – the reason for that silence becomes clear: GCSEs.
The exams exemplify some of the problems the school faces. “We struggle to get the children in for them. We have to send minibuses to collect them. We have to fight so many different battles,” explains headteacher Stephen Gabriel, who has led St Peter’s since 2016.
Despite these challenges, Ofsted reports that the school’s leadership has created an environment “where pupils achieve as best they can and with strong outcomes, regardless of their ability or their background.”
More and more of our students have been successful in actually going to university.
This leadership includes Peter Crowe, a head of technical services at the University, who’s one of 1,000 staff and alumni volunteers using their expertise to help schools through the University’s School Governor Initiative.
“Our governing body recognises the challenges that the community and young people face, and they help us deliver on resolving some of those issues – not just academically, but also socially,” says Stephen.
“The governors had a meeting yesterday where we debated raising the price of a school meal. Currently its £2, but the cost is much greater. It would’ve been easy to increase it but that decision wasn’t taken as it might stop 10% of our pupils eating a proper meal that day.”
Leadership and governance need to be exceptional in order for a school to be rated as outstanding by Ofsted. Having governors with the appropriate skills and commitment is therefore crucial. As part of Manchester’s widening participation work to improve outcomes for young people in disadvantaged areas, the School Governor Initiative makes a significant contribution.
At a time when school governors are in short supply, the University’s 1,000 governors impact 450,000 learners in England, volunteering 1,200 days of their time. The University has also been supporting other universities to establish similar initiatives.
A force for good
Away from the headline figures, Manchester’s school governors are making a real difference to pupils, ready-made with social responsibility in mind.
“Peter embodies social responsibility”, says Stephen.
“Those University values are a force for good in our mission to further the life chances of our young people.”
Peter’s expertise has led to him chairing the school’s premises committee, resulting in major improvements in safety. He’s also helped raise pupils’ aspirations by promoting visits to the University campus – just a five-minute drive down Plymouth Grove, but light years away in terms of size and scale.
“Peter took me behind the scenes to see the medical students’ mock ward. It was inspirational. So one of the ideas we had is for all of our pupils to visit a university. For young people here, they’ll be inspired,” says Stephen.
“What’s happened over many years is that more and more of our students have been successful in actually going to university.”
Before leaving to invigilate that afternoon’s GCSE English literature exam, Stephen reflects on how the School Governor Initiative is creating leadership teams as strong as that at St Peter’s across the country.
“A thousand Peters in different schools? I think it’s just incredible.”