The contribution of volunteers cannot be underestimated. Replace them with paid people, and it becomes just another job.

Some governors of struggling schools in England should be paid, in the opinion of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector of schools. His argument is that there should be more focus on the governance of schools.

Not surprisingly, his view is controversial. The National Governors’ Association, for example, disagrees. In the words of a spokeswoman: “NGA does not believe it would currently be helpful to offer payment to some or all school governors.” However, the NGA does support further strengthening of arrangements to ensure proper payment of expenses, and time off with pay agreed with all employers to support governors in their work. The NGA adds that, in the current financial climate, any additional money available could be used in more effective ways, for example to fund training.

As someone who served, more than 20 years ago, as a governor in a secondary school and a primary school — whose governing body I chaired — I am most uneasy at the thought of paying governors. My unease does not come from any feeling that the job is simple; it is often complicated and extremely demanding. It comes rather from my belief that the role of volunteers prepared to provide service to the community is important.

That principle has long been widely held. Many aspects of British public life depend heavily on the availability of volunteers. Local government, particularly at the most local — parish — level, is a good case in point. Another is lay magistrates.

There are many other examples of community life, which simply would not work if there were not a stream of volunteers willing to give their time to them. This is what has become known, as a result of the views of David Cameron, the Prime Minister, as the “Big Society”. In February 2011 he spoke passionately of the need for “a social recovery: because “there are too many parts of our society that are broken”. As always with the “Big Ideas” of politicians, it is easy to become cynical. Indeed, earlier this year some charity leaders accused David Cameron of neglecting his Big Society idea, and claimed that the concept appeared to be “going nowhere”.

I have no wish to enter that controversy. My concern is with my continuing belief that the contribution made by volunteers to society is of very great importance. Replace them or some of them, with paid people, and inevitably the volunteers are likely to lose their commitment and their paid successors (or associates: I understand that the idea is not to pay all governors) will simply be doing a job. If I wanted to be cynical, I would foresee the development of the idea that paid people might wish to be treated like bankers and given bonuses.

If there are problems with the governance of some schools — notably schools which face particular and major difficulties — (and there is no reason to doubt the chief inspector about this) what should the solution be? It is certainly not adequate for people like me, who dislike the idea of paid governors, to put our heads in the sand and argue that “it has always been like this, and nothing should change”. My solution would lie in making sure that school governors — and other voluntary bodies — should receive adequate support. Providing more training, as suggested by the NGA, is certainly one way in which this could be done.

Another would be to ensure that all governing bodies were served by paid officials, with specialist knowledge, with the role of making sure that the governors knew what was needed, and knew how to provide it. In principle, this is exactly what happens already, but it may well be necessary to review the situation particularly with schools facing specially serious problems.

At the centre of my opinion about all this is a strong belief in the value of voluntary work. It derives from my upbringing. My father, in the 1930s, ran an ambulance service in the small community where we lived, staffed (and funded) entirely by volunteers, most of them in fairly low grade jobs. (This was a period of great national economic weakness.)

Precisely what activities require the work and service of volunteers obviously changes over time. What should not change, in my view, is the value given to the willingness of volunteers to provide service. In that, I find myself in total sympathy with the concept of the “Big Society”, and totally out of sympathy with the idea of paying school governors, or other volunteers.

E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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