Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

15/04/2020 13:33:47

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins first categorised as such about 1500 years ago, but it appears in the 21st century to be have been rehabilitated: so often now people talk about “wanting to make their families proud”. So I have hesitantly begun allowing myself a little pride in NGA’s e-learning.

I haven’t had much career advice in my life, but 15 years ago my boss advised me never to get involved in an IT project and I assured him I had no intention of doing that. It’s not where my skills or knowledge lie. However about five years ago at NGA, after our annual strategy day with our board of trustees, I asked Paul Aber, our newly appointed Head of Training Development to explore the possibility of NGA developing e-learning. There were already a couple of platforms, but neither had the advantage that NGA has of an organisation stuffed full of governance expertise just waiting to be turned into e-learning modules. It seemed an obvious addition to the options available to both those governing and clerking.

NGA’s charitable object is to improve the educational welfare of pupils by promoting high standards and improving school governance. Face-to-face training and networking will always form an important part of a development offer for governors, trustees and clerks; indeed in our Leading Governance development programmes funded by the Department for Education we use a variety of approaches, including online and project work. But there are three important considerations which apply even more to volunteers than paid professionals: time, timeliness and cost. 

Time: It is unreasonable to expect all governors and trustees to give up the considerable time needed to be inducted and then keep up to date - in person - with the knowledge needed to govern schools, especially where this might involve taking unpaid leave from a day job or travelling a considerable distance after work or when children need putting to bed.

Timeliness: There are some topics not covered in detail during induction but a volunteer may later finds themselves at fairly short notice needing to take part in; for example, exclusion panels, headteacher recruitment and appraisal. E-learning was an obvious solution to that problem.

However that early preliminary scoping exercise made it clear that NGA simply did not have the money to invest in such an expensive venture. The concept was the right one, but we did not have the financial wherewithal to make it happen. Our ambition was helped on its way by serendipity; we became the caretaker of a former partner’s e-learning platform for a year as they were winding down. Being a social enterprise can be perilous at the best of times, as the current COVID-19 period reinforces.

We launched NGA’s very own Learning Link in April 2017, having tendered for a technology partner with the result that Virtual College provides our platform. During 2017/18 we created our eight interactive induction modules – boy are they substantial.  But my team rightly didn’t want to dumb down what is a responsible and complex role. You can do them in chunks – and at any point of the day (or night!) you want. They are CPD accredited.

Cost: No-one more than NGA knows the financial restrictions many schools are under, and although it is as important to invest in volunteer development just as much as staff development, governing boards hesitate before spending much on themselves. Of course we argue that is a false economy, but the reaction comes from a good place. Furthermore, value for money is at the heart of how NGA operates, having begun as a small charity in 2006 and I am proud that we have not lost that instinct. We keep the price low – crazily low: an annual subscription to Learning Link is

Learning Link (without NGA membership)


Learning Link (if you have NGA Gold membership)

£165 £82

Learning Link (if you have NGA Standard membership)

£165 £122

That is not per person: that is for all the board and its clerk. So if you are the average board size of 10 people, then that’s under £8 each for the whole year for NGA GOLD members. Less than the price of a breakfast in a chain hotel. No wonder almost half of governing boards in England have signed up. And now before choosing to subscribe your board can even get a free preview of Learning Link with access to five of the most popular modules. 

So thank you for paying for it, but are subscribers actually using it? Yes, there are over 28,000 users on the platform – that’s 10,000 more learners than last year and 75% engagement. I am told by people who are techy (that’s not my skill, but I have people who are) that this is a very high engagement rate for something which is not compulsory. It demonstrates volunteers’ thirst for knowledge. In total there have been 300,000  hours of learning.

But we know there is much more we can do. NGA’s board of trustees has made the development of Learning Link a continuing priority. In 2019 we added a new module on MAT governance and another on succession planning, and in the coming term we will add nine bitesize modules which can be more easily be done by a board collectively before or after their meeting, as well as individually. And as a not-for-profit social enterprise, increased income from Learning Link means increased investment in upgrading existing modules – both those you use most often and those you aren’t drawn to, but perhaps should be! The team is developing a three year plan: there will be more great modules to come.       

Learning Link’s colour is not green by accident: #GreenerGovernance – no travel and no paper.

I was told that a rather eminent leadership expert who charges a lot for keynote sessions has said: the trouble with NGA is they always want to sell you something else. Well yes, I do want all governing boards to buy Learning Link, and I am not apologetic about it. I will do a keynote on good governance for a fraction of their price, but I may well mention NGA’s e-learning. It’s not paid for by the Department for Education or any other big donor – schools buy it because it’s blooming good value, it’s quality information, and I promise it will only get better, all in the cause of improving school governance.

Happy third birthday Learning Link. I’m proud of what the NGA team has achieved in this time and will keep talking about it. You may know it has been NGA’s ask of the government forever to introduce mandatory induction training for governors and trustees, and they have resisted. But now it feels to me the governance community might just be able to do this on our own, through choice, rather than by mandation! This I hope is system leadership in action.

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