Protecting the board

  • School boards share many of the responsibilities of corporate boards
  • But making sure you get the right skills to manage this can be tough
  • Governors need to make sure they understand their liabilities and properly risk manage their exposure

The role of a school governor is a serious one, despite them often being familiar faces from the school playground.

“While a school board of governors is different to a corporate board – in that it is run for community benefit, not for the interests of shareholders – in other aspects it is very similar,” says Tilden Watson, Head of Education at Zurich Municipal, and a school governor.

Many people believe that members of a school board do not have the same legal duties as those of for-profit companies, but in fact school board members are obliged to comply with all legislative requirements – otherwise the school is open to potential liability.

These legal obligations are the same at all schools, whatever the size or the experience of the board members, and can make the job extremely challenging.

“Corporations tend to invest heavily in leadership at the top level because they understand the difference that having the right team can make to their chances of success,” says Tilden.

“But in schools, board members are drawn from the community and unpaid. As a result, it can be a harder to get a group with the right mixture of skills.”

This could be a particular problem for free schools, which have newer board members who may be unaware of their responsibilities.

Appropriate cover

But all schools need to consider appropriate and robust cover.

“Selecting the right risk and insurance cover is critical and it is vital that you ensure your school has the appropriate cover in place for its day to day activities,” says Tilden.

“Many schools recognise that the selection of insurance purely on price can be a costly error. Selecting the wrong provider can leave a school and governors exposed in terms of liabilities and levels of support.

“Compliance can be tough,” adds Tilden. “There is a whole myriad of legislation, from health and safety, to changes in premises regulation and financial best practice, and it’s always changing.

“It’s very easy to fall down on something and get yourself into trouble.

“For example, without the right skills, the board might not be able to make decisions based on the most up-to-date thinking. They may end up over-relying on the teachers in the school for help, and this can compromise them in their role of being there both to support and challenge the school.”

It is also vital that all board members understand that they must act in the interests of the school as a whole, and not represent and promote the interests of particular groups or stakeholders.

Importance of risk management

According to Tilden, failure to properly manage these risks could mean that Ofsted: “comes down on you like a ton of bricks – and that is not a pleasant place to be.”

There is the potential for liabilities across a broad range of areas, for example school trips, which need to be properly risk managed, and there is even the risk of historical liabilities.

In schools, board members are drawn from the community and unpaid. As a result it can be a harder to get a group with the right mixture of skills

Tilden Watson, Head of Education at Zurich Municipal

Zurich Municipal recently helped one education establishment defend itself against allegations that took place there in the 1970s, causing a former pupil to turn to drink and drugs later in life, damaging his career and marriage.

Although the overall view in the judgment was that the claimant was mistaken in this belief, there were still substantial costs to be paid, running to tens of thousands of pounds.

The key to successfully negotiating difficult terrain such as legal challenges is to maintain a good dialogue with your insurer and to develop better risk management.

“We have a risk engineering function that can support organisations prior to any critical incident occurring,” says Tilden.

“If and when something does happen, the first thing a school should do is give us a call. We have all kind of expertise – legal, communications – and we can help.”

“We can quickly get a sense of what you need and put this in place to make sure a school comes out of this in the best possible shape.”