At the National Governance Association's annual conference on 16 November 2019, our chief executive Emma Knights gave the annual address to members. Here is a written copy of the speech which may appear slightly different to delivery:

"It is my privilege to have led the National Governance Association for another year, under the direction of NGA’s board of trustees to whom I am deeply grateful.  Thank you particularly to the chair of our board, Maggi Bull, who gives the time to listen and reflect, and challenges me in the best possible way, knowledgeably, authoritatively, kindly and ethically, always keeping the needs of our members and the pupils of their schools at the centre of what NGA does.

NGA is a thoughtful organisation – the anti-thesis of shooting from the hip – just as school governing is a thoughtful occupation.  NGA’s own annual strategy cycle formally begins here this afternoon, with the review of the last year at the AGM.  But the staff team begins earlier with the results of the annual governance survey which most of you in this room will have completed last term along with almost 6000 others.  Over the summer we interrogate the responses: of course we look at the numbers but we can also see the mood from the thousands of qualitative comments.  And our priorities for the following academic year begin to take shape.

Now there is the added dimension of a General Election at a rather unusual time of year.  The NGA manifesto which you will have received on 1st November draws heavily on the governance survey and was discussed at our September board meeting. It is absolutely grounded in the experiences and concerns of our members. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have seen it retains many of the issues we included in our 2015 and our 2017 manifestos.  

Last year the school funding shortfalls formed a major part of this address; at that point we were engaged in pantomime dialogue with the Department for Education: “we don’t have enough money to run our schools”; “oh yes you do”; “oh no we don’t”.  But during the Conservative party leadership election this summer, it was accepted that schools needed additional funding. It was no longer meeting the needs of pupils and the Government pledged an increase, the first part of which will actually reach some schools from April.

This commitment, which I am assuming (I hope not naively) will be honoured by whoever is returned to govern on 12th December.  The £7.1 billion over the next three years promised by the Government so far will not solve all the issues, but it is still progress. This important success was due in large part to many people: parents, teachers, headteachers and those governing, coming together to tell their stories, each different but each important.  And I want to pay tribute to those governors and trustees who joined in with NGA’s Funding the future campaign or lobbied MPs locally.  Thank you.  It is not the usual modus operandi for many who govern.  Governing schools is largely a back room operation, with much confidential information, not something done in the glare of publicity.  So it took courage to come out and ask politicians to listen.  But many of you did, so thank you for helping to push education up the political agenda.

As charity we are able to engage in the lobbying of politicians if we maintain our independence and the activity supports our charitable objective, which for NGA is to improve the educational welfare of pupils by promoting high standards and improving governance in state schools.  During an election campaign a charity can publish a manifesto to try to persuade the political parties to adopt the policies which it advocates, or simply to raise the public profile of those issues. That we have done and  are sending to the candidates standing across England , setting out our members concerns with a view to promoting debate.  That debate can be taken to the next level if you are able to engage with the candidates in your local areas with the manifesto supported by your own local knowledge.

The one issue we have been criticised for leaving out so far is the environment.  I think that is fair criticism. NGA is encouraging governing boards to listen to their pupils, and this an issue that young people are prioritising, so we should take our lead from them.  Just yesterday at our first MAT governance conference in a presentation from Wayne Norrie, the chief executive of Greenwood Academies Trust, said they were taking environmental issues seriously after being challenged by their pupils.  Considering how climate change and environmental issues first within the wider curriculum is an important aspect of preparing pupils for life. NGA is also trying to so its bit.  Your next Governing Matters magazine will not only have a fresh new design, but will be also be naked, or if you prefer unwrapped, without its plastic cover.  Learning Link, our e-learning offer, is green – no paper and no travel.  And next year we are changing the ways we are meeting with you: there will be conference in every region as networking is valued by us all, but we will also be beginning to hold webinars and experimenting with podcasts.

The idea of governance happening behind closed doors, out of sight, has been in the literature for some time. You may remember research on governing bodies published by CfBT in 2010 was called “Hidden givers”, and the work of governing boards has been described before that in the research literature as overlooked.  I would also add under-estimated, although not by NGA.  There are so many good people up and down the breadth of this county contributing to children’s education and schools’ sustainability. You are being sold short, and I worry that NGA has not been able to turn that round.  Due to a series of Department for Education ministers who have understood the importance of governance, and indeed championed it, the topic is now frequently mentioned within the DfE as needing attention, and I should acknowledge the investment into the governance development programmes of which we understand NGA’s offer of Leading Governance is the largest of the six funded by the DfE.  Since sessions under this contract began in early 2018, there have been over 1,200 participants taking part on our programmes alone.  

At this point we had planned to show a video from the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson. Clearly it was not possible to include a video during the election campaign, but I imagine it would have thanked you for what you do, an indeed opposition spokespeople have done at previous conferences too.

However governance is largely mentioned as a problem, only noticed when things go wrong – and that is not just in the schools sector. Governance is often seen just as an insurance policy, to prevent mishaps and disaster, rather than something much more fundamental.  After all in any system or organisation, country even, governance defines:

Who has the power, who makes the decisions, how others make their voices heard and how account is rendered.

Yes, that is the business you are in. Making key decisions, using your power and influence for the good of children and young people, taking into account the views and experiences of key stakeholders.  As committed NGA members, you will be aware that we have added a fourth core function of governing boards to the three listed in the DfE’s Governance Handbook: that absolutely essential function of ensuring the voices of the school’s stakeholders are heard – staff, pupils, parents, the wider community, local employers - which is in danger of getting lost under the huge workload of compliance and financial constraints. It is important in every sector under the sun, but in publicly funded services, there is an added dimension of rendering account. There is a not only a moral purpose in what you do, as there is in many other organisations, for example within the voluntary sector, the third sector, the charitable sector, in any social enterprise, but the education of the nation’s children is even more than that: it is an absolutely vital public service.

You are public servants as are the staff you employ.  As such you are bound by the Nolan Principles - selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness; honesty; leadership. Those of you at this event last year will remember hearing Carolyn Roberts, the chair of the Ethical Leadership Commission set up by the Association of School and College Leaders, introducing the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education which was formally launched in January after a period of consultation.  The Commission took that seventh Nolan principle of leadership and explored what that meant for schools which serve children and young people, helping them to grow into fulfilled and valued citizens.  As their role models, how we behave it as important as what we do. We identified seven characteristics through which leadership can be shown:

Trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.

It took much reflection and debate to come up with the framework you see behind me and in your packs. And we have been so pleased with its reception in the last nine months; there has been such an appetite for a common language and to get involved in engaging in this discourse.  But what does putting these values into practice look like? How does consideration of ethics becomes embedded in our decision making?  NGA volunteered to act as the secretariat for pathfinders, open to all schools and colleges in England. This is truly an initiative led by schools and trusts, and today we are publishing a progress report about the pathfinders.  Their names are now in the public domain, so that others who are interested can talk to them. And we now have a second band of pathfinders who are beginning work this school year.  

If you didn’t get a chance to take this on board last year; it is not too late. The pathfinders remain open until 30th January, the date of the Ethics Summit.  If you are interested, whether inside this hall or outside, please email and we will tell you more.  There is often much talk of system-led improvements and system leadership, but given the fragmentation of the system, it hard to come by truly system-led initiatives, but I suggest that the way the framework has been embraced and the pathfinders exhibit exactly that. This is not top-down; it was not spawned by fear or dictat; these are some schools and trusts volunteering to explore the way, indeed finding paths through this difficult terrain, often controversial terrain. Not because anyone told them to do this, not because anyone put them on a pedestal, but because leaders agreed it is the right thing to do and because they want to share what they learn.  Culture is notoriously difficult to change, particularly culture of a whole system.  Thank you to all those organisations promoting the framework and a particular thank you to the pathfinders.

Last year this conference was also addressed by Nick Brook, the chair of National Association of Headteachers’ Accountability Commission, which I think was influential in securing the abolition of the floor and coasting targets. NAHT has now convened a School Improvement Commission to follow on this work, and consider how support might be best provided by and to schools.  I am pleased to be able to contribute to that very timely work.

So let me return to the place of governance within the school sector. We have said for years that organisations with good governance do not fail.  But I am conscious that that is rather a deficit vision.  You are not only there just to stop things going horribly wrong, you are also there to help things go wonderfully right.  A very important part of which is recruiting, supporting, challenging tremendous school and trust leaders, helping them to develop to carry out their absolutely crucial role.

Last year I criticised the governance knowledge amongst school leaders – and of course it was that part of the speech which made the education press.  So what progress has been made in the meantime?  I cannot claim a transformation, but the message begins to be heard. The NPQs (the national professional qualifications owned by the DfE) have undergone a slight revision and we were excited to hear that the governance expectations were to be raised.  However when we tracked down the curriculum, we were disappointed that the bar seemed to us still to be set low.  It seems odd that a profession which imparts knowledge and had high aspirations for its pupils does not have the same for its leaders.  Or perhaps it does but is being held back by the DfE’s unwillingness to relinquish the apron strings.  We look forward to the day when the profession is in control of its own development as so brilliantly articulated by Dame Professor Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College, at our summer conference.

Knowledge is the bedrock of good governance, but relationships are at its heart. Good relationships based on trust are one of NGA’s 8 elements of effective governance.  Between the board members themselves, but also with the clerk and senior leaders.  NGA works to have the strong constructive relationships with the national professional organisations that you aim to have at school and trust level.   For many years we have jointly produced “What governing boards should expect from school leaders and what school leaders should expect from governing boards” updating it every few years.  This document is one of the most popular on our website plus it is available on our partners’ websites too.  Today we publish the 2019 edition: however with a break with tradition; it is now named the slightly nattier: what governing boards and school leaders should expect from each other. That’s innovation for you. It is already on the website, but if you want a hard copy, there are a few beautiful but limited edition on the NGA stand.

Trust has to be built by both those governing and the professional leaders through embodying the school’s values and ethos in all that you do; promoting the school; united in the vision you are aiming for; valuing, supporting and listening to the staff; valuing, supporting and listening to your stakeholders, and communicating well and consistently, publicly with one voice.  While trust is strictly necessary between the people involved, the systems needs to ensure that there is a healthy mis-trust. NGA has taken to quoting Bertrand Russell who listed as one of his Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, he wished to promulgate:

Do not feel absolutely certain of anything

That is why when governing we need to make sure we have information other than that provided by our trusted leaders. Information mediated by school leaders requires corroboration. Requiring different information from different sources – whether external sources, your stakeholders, or what you or others governing have seen themselves – is not a sign of personal mistrust; it is just part of the check and balance of good governance.

A few years ago Ofsted carried out some research in declining schools; and what it discovered was that problems occurred or improvement faltered when governing boards failed to challenge the headteacher enough.  And that deficit in challenge could be categorised as happening in two circumstances, one when there was a lack of urgency due to complacency or distractions, and the second when the governing board was over-reliant on the headteacher for knowledge of the school.  This year we updated our guidance on parental engagement with ParentKind and next year we want to gather more examples of how governing boards are successfully engaging with pupils.  From the annual survey, we know 61% of your schools conducted pupil surveys last year, 54% met with the pupil council; 39% involved pupils in staff selection and 17% held a pupil focus group.  Given that conversations with pupils are now playing a much bigger part in the inspection process, a positive spin off from those changes in Ofsted methodology could be more governing boards having the confidence to make this part of their business as usual.

As everyone in this hall I am sure is well aware and as Amanda Spielman, HMCI, presented at our summer conference, the new Ofsted framework for inspecting schools came into effect in September. One of Ofsted’s three responsibilities listed on the government website is “publishing reports of our findings so they can be used to improve the overall quality of education and training”.  But what hadn’t been trailed last academic year were the considerable changes to the format of the inspection reports. Over the summer, Sean Harford, national director of education at Ofsted, wrote in a blog that reports “will be briefer, clearer, and better focused on the users of those being inspected”. 

I completely understand that parents are a very important audience for Ofsted reports. However we are concerned that another audience – one with oversight of the school’s improvement strategy – has been overlooked. No prizes for guessing that I mean governing boards. There is no longer a separate section on each of the four judgements; which also means there is no longer the paragraph on the effectiveness of governance. As much as I would love to say that it is the work of NGA which has had the biggest impact in ensuring improvement in governance over the past decade, I’m not sure I could justify that in comparison to the spotlight provided by Ofsted’s increased emphasis on governance from 2012, its universal inclusion in inspection reports and recommendations for external reviews of governance.  It does pain me to say this as schools should be committed to continuous improvement simply because it is the right thing to be, not because of what Ofsted is seen to be promoting.  But all too often those governing hear the response from school leaders of ‘Ofsted expects….’.  Let us try and break that cycle of Ofsted being the arbiter of all that is right and proper.

However until we are in that ideal scenario, this change in Ofsted reporting risks reducing the emphasis on governance by inspectors and thus the importance assigned to it by school leaders. We have been assured by Ofsted this will not be the case, but we remain to be convinced that all inspectors are in practice inspecting the core functions of the governing board as their own framework expects them to be. 

We have also been in discussions with Ofsted about how we can make sure that governing boards do get the information from the inspection that they need to oversee the education being provided at the school and that any relevant actions are taken. The final feedback meeting, to which all the governing board are invited, has become even more important in making sure that this happens and Ofsted agreed that the clerk could attend to take notes.

We also suggested another change: that the chair of the governing board be invited to attend, strictly as an observer, the inspectors’ final team meeting with the headteacher. This is still being considered by Ofsted and may be piloted on a regional basis.  Even if this does not go ahead, Ofsted has committed to reviewing whether the new reporting arrangements are working to ensure governing boards can play their role in improving the quality of education. 

NGA is very keen to hear from any governors and trustees whose schools are inspected this term: please complete the short feedback form and in the New Year we will be sharing the results.  The lack of detail in inspection reports is not going down well with governing boards, whereas there has been more praise to-date for the feedback meeting, with approximately half respondents reporting it to be very useful.  There are a number of emerging issues which seem to be affecting primary schools more than secondaries: the role of subject leads, the use of pupil voice, the inspection of subjects which are not timetabled during the inspection and how much transition to the new framework is being given.  Those of you awaiting an inspection be prepared to talk about your school’s strengths and weaknesses, and offer the inspector your school’s strategy.

Two years ago I said: “the system not only needs to value its volunteers more, it needs to value governance more.” Last year I had to admit we had not managed to transform that over the previous twelve months.  I promise we have continued to try and make the case at every possible occasion, but still no eureka moment.  So I think our strategy needs to change: instead of the quiet, surgical strike to the powers that be by NGA, we need a mass uprising. I am not suggesting an armed insurrection, but simply the time has come for school governance to emerge from the shadows into the light.  So we are planning for 2020 a campaign for visible governance. We will be providing for governors and trustees willing to be noticed - what I am being told to call ‘pins’ - badges for grown ups.  We are struggling with a name for this campaign – so we are looking for suggestions. We want to something that will inspire confidence in those governing and encourage others to take on the role.

So, what is the collective noun for the absolutely vast school governance community? I wondered whether we could call the quarter of a million of you a multitude of governors, but sadly, that can’t be: as multitude apparently means the mass of ordinary people without power or influence.  And you are most definitely extraordinary, and certainly not without power and influence. School governance remains a role where ordinary people can stand up and be counted; and wield power and influence on behalf of their communities in the interest of children. It is a wonderful example of citizen service; you might even call it participatory democracy.

I have always thought of those who govern as a movement, a movement for good, but one which is sold short given all its phenomenal efforts. We know you do not volunteer for recognition; our surveys show you are most motivated by improving the lives of children and by putting something back into the community.  But it would in fact further improve the lives of children and their communities if your knowledge and experience was learnt from. So if you are not going to be handed the recognition you deserve after repeated polite requests, we need to become a little more demanding, but in a joyful way, in a witty way, in a way which resonates with the professional role for which you are volunteering. I hope in 2020 you will join one another in standing up for children.  Not only should that gain this movement more clout, but a higher profile for the role will encourage others to volunteer; and we need that supply of new volunteers.

Most of you will be aware of our Everyone on Board campaign to increase the diversity of boards, starting with BAME governors and younger governors.  As we have reported in Governing Matters at first glance the survey data was disappointing with the percentage of respondents who identified themselves as BAME barely increasing to 5.4%, compared with 14% of the English population at the last census. However when we looked at the respondents recruited in the last two years, the percentage was 9.7%.  Although this is still not good enough, there is also positive news from Inspiring Governance, where the potential volunteers are 20% and those which are appointed to governing boards are also 20% BAME. We are in this for the long-term.  

Last year I announced our Educators on board campaign for 2019 to encourage educationalists to volunteer on a board outside their own school or trust, and this started extremely well this year with help from key figures across the sector and with lots of senior leaders, middle leaders, teachers, school business managers declaring themselves as educators on board; and confirming that this was the best CPD.  Again this is a slow burner of an initiative which will bear more fruit as those governing in other schools apply to be headteachers, bringing to that new professional role essential understanding of what it is to be held to account by a governing board.  If you are an educational professional who is governing please do make contact with Kirstie Ebbs and support this campaign.

Talking of professional roles, I can’t get to the end of my annual address without mentioning the all important role of governance professionals, clerks. We are currently half way through a piece of work considering remuneration for clerks. As our advisers as well as our administrators, they need to be paid the rate for the job, and we must truly begin to invest in governance support. The workload of governors and trustees is made more manageable where a professional clerk covers the full job description and is able to avail themselves of relevant CPD. In 2020 we aim to consolidate our partnership with ICSA: the chartered governance institute (who have joined us here today), working together to ensure the best possible routes are available for people to join the profession and develop in it.

The annual survey made it very clear that the governing boards all over the country are concerned about the provision being offered to pupils with SEND. Each and every children deserves an education which is appropriate for their needs, enabling them to develop to the very best of their potential. But funding constraints, both of SEND for schools, but also of a whole array of related health and other childrens’ services, is making this more and more difficult.   I am pleased that today Professor Adam Boddison , chief executive of NASEN, will be giving us the benefit of this expertise.

And another big area of concern has been the workload and well-being of staff. The Department for Education has this year continued its work to highlight and tackle these issues, and NGA has been pleased to contribute and disseminate.  We have also prioritised staffing issues in the review of our Knowledge Centre: covering a range of topics from flexible working to monitoring teacher wellbeing and headteacher recruitment; and we continue to mention the need to improve HR practice in many schools at every opportunity. Sinead McBrearty, CEO of Education Support Partnership, will address you this afternoon on the ways in which the governing board can ensure its staff are supported.

The communities you govern in will vary enormously, but your aspirations for your pupils and your concerns are very similar. There is no need to be setting one school up against another; quite the opposite.  There is much to learn from each other; strength in collaboration. Let us emphasise that unity.  Of course you do not all think the same thing all the time; representing your views is not only a science drawing from the quantitative data but a qualitative exercise of sensing the mood.  There has been a lot of dismay in the face of the funding challenges, anger that this generation of children are being let down, but the vast majority of volunteers have stayed to manage the situation. Pragmatic, resilient, persistent, caring.

And as a result of that determination, that staying power, governance is getting better.  Education and Employers recently published a report on Governing out Schools: 10 year on, and its verdict was school governance was improving.  There is still more to do, but at least a bit of a good news story, one therefore that has not made it into the press. 

I am surrounded by people who are trying to make the world a better place. Our members: so I cannot help but be humbled by your commitment and be optimistic about the future for our children improving with your invaluable input.  Thank you for what you do."

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