08 Feb My experience as both a magistrate and a school governor
This week on the Modern Governor blog we’ll be looking at what “being professional” might mean in other voluntary contexts – particularly that of magistrates. In this post Kevin Peel, a Labour & co-operative councillor for Manchester City Council who also volunteers as a magistrate and school governor, reflects on the similarities and differences between those two voluntary roles. Kevin can be contacted via the City Centre Voice web site and you can follow him on Twitter at @kevpeel.
What roles do you have in your life?
I’m an elected city councillor, I’m also a voluntary Magistrate on the Manchester & Salford bench, I’m a governor at a local school and a Trustee for a local youth charity.
For how long have you been a magistrate and a school governor?
I’ve been sitting as a Magistrate for about 6 months now and during that time I’ve had about a dozen sittings. I have been a school governor in the past but my most recent appointment only started a couple of months ago in a new school and I’m very excited to get stuck in.
For those who aren’t familiar with what a magistrate is and does, how would you describe the role?
It is quite hard to describe as many people have no idea what it is! I basically describe it as a volunteer judge who deals with less serious criminal cases (over 90% of all criminal cases in England) through fines, community sentences and short custodial sentences.
What’s the pay like as a magistrate?
Magistrates aren’t paid, like the role of school governor it’s a voluntary position.
As the role of magistrate is a voluntary one, who checks that you’re good or competent at what you do?
There is a lengthy selection process involving written testing and several stages of interviewing by sitting Magistrates and lay members of the local recruitment panel with a wide background of experience.
What formal or informal qualifications can a magistrate obtain to show that they’re good at their role?
You don’t need any formal qualifications – I certainly don’t have any! You are judged on your competence against qualities like good character, sound judgement, social awareness, maturity and commitment.
As a volunteer in two capacities (magistrate and school governor) what’s been the main difference in your experience of the roles?
They’re both varied, challenging and interesting roles, but in very different ways. As a Magistrate I have no idea what I’ll be dealing with until I arrive in the courtroom. It can be anything from traffic offences to domestic violence trials. You have no information in advance and simply have to pay attention to the information and evidence in front of you and reach a position with your two colleagues on the bench. That decision can have very serious consequences for the person in front of you. As a governor there is lots of information to read in advance of meetings and you have to read it carefully in order to do your job of holding the senior leadership to account and working with staff and governors to improve the school and the outcomes for children. Good governance is essential to the school experience.
How much time does each role take from your life?
The time each takes really depends on your level of commitment and availability. On average I spend two days per month as a magistrate. I’m new to my current governing body role but in addition to full board meetings every term and committee meetings in between I do intend to visit the school, meet with staff and parents and pupils and support activities and improvement plans. I have the flexibility to do this with my other commitments but it can be difficult for someone working full time.
What could magistrates learn from school governors?
Being a school governor puts you right in the thick of the daily life of young people today and you get a good understanding of their concerns and challenges and all the work going into helping them to succeed. I think this is very helpful when hearing cases involving young people (as many do) in understanding the wider picture and not being removed from the community you are serving. Many magistrates play an active role in schools and other local organisations.
…and what could school governors learn from magistrates?
In my mind certainly, school governors should always be looking at how we can improve outcomes for young people and support them to go onto further education, employment or training in order to avoid any unwanted crossover between schools and courtrooms…
For you, is ‘professionalism’ related to pay, status, background, or something else?
I’m the eldest of five children brought up on a council estate by parents who really struggled. I don’t have a degree. Professionalism is about how you carry out your duties in a thoughtful, mature and considered manner and it shouldn’t be linked to pay, status, background or anything else.
If someone was looking to volunteer in one of these community roles, what would you advise them to think about or be aware of?
Think about the time you can give, what you want to get out of it and what you’re prepared to put in.
I find volunteering – including as a magistrate and a governor – extremely rewarding and highly recommend it to anyone with the time and energy to do it.
Questions for governing boards
- When we recruit new governors, do we find out about other voluntary experience candidates might have had?
- Have we measured, assessed or kept track of the demands on time as a governor on our board, so we can communicate the to those who might be interested in volunteering?
- What are our professional expectations of governors? (How) do we as a board communicate, measure and judge these in new and existing governors?