Governance professionals and members of governing boards have become accustomed to having conversations about common features of governance during the pandemic. This is namely virtual meetings, remote monitoring responsibilities and delays/alterations to certain processes and procedures, not to mention shifting priorities and the various challenges associated with these. But what about the future? What are the challenges in slowly returning to ‘business as usual’?
Arguably the biggest challenge will be not returning to business as usual, given advancements made during the last year. These do not amount to a sea change in governing board dynamics, but it would certainly represent a missed opportunity not to take advantage of new practices that have emerged out of the need for pragmatism. For example, many will not be rushing back to the use of ink for signing documents when the last twelve months have proved that an electronic signature would suffice.
Therefore, clerks and other governance professionals, in consultation with their boards, should carefully consider what has worked well (and not so well) when reviewing the long term need for other initiatives such as virtual meetings and online training. There is still room for improvement, for example with clarity required as to use of the ‘chat’ function built into virtual meeting platforms and how such comments are recorded. But such challenges do not outweigh in importance the major ongoing priorities of widening participation (including the diversification of governing boards) and improving attendance. Embracing virtual governance in the long term must also be balanced with concerted efforts to reconnect those governing with their schools and trusts where the distance has been felt.
The important task of widening agendas also poses a challenge where data previously relied on may not be available. In terms of possible solutions, it is likely that new benchmarks will be required and personal interactions in link/priority areas will need to remain high, with governance professionals playing a key part in smoothing communication and managing relevant information. Throughout the pandemic, the importance of these responsibilities has emphasised the invaluable role played by clerks and other governance professionals. Looking ahead, it highlights the need for them to continue to serve as key points of contact for the executive team in addition to the governing board, and to embrace their roles as innovators and changemakers. Together with the chair, they should also lead on reprioritising succession planning, which generally speaking has slipped down the agenda.
A further long-term concern of amending strategic priorities and ensuring that school improvement/development plans are adjusted accordingly will also be crucial. While not necessarily challenging, this will involve close engagement with the ‘catch-up’ narrative alongside diligent financial oversight that ensures effective spending of catch-up funding. Close monitoring of pupil outcomes will also be required, again with a chance for governance professionals to exploit the valuable opportunities created by virtual meetings – half an hour online being much easier to fit into everyone’s diary!
Beyond these priorities, all boards will need to look at the impact of the current situation on their organisations’ future planning and strategies, by reflecting on their response and scrutinising whether existing planning was sufficient. The need for a comprehensive approach to risk management has come to the fore, with governing boards and their governance professionals engaging more than ever with documents such as risk registers, which has been the case not only in academy trusts but also in maintained schools.
Looking ahead, conversations about the extent to which risk mitigation can deal with a variety of contingencies must remain high on the agenda. For example, an obvious question on the lips of many should be that of the school’s/trust’s readiness for further unforeseen events, including how sustainable remote learning offers would be in the event of further school closures, however small that possibility. It is also fair to say that sufficient training in risk management will be vital, which clerks and other governance professionals will be instrumental in promoting, not to mention the importance of seeking their own development opportunities aimed at perpetuating the good practice continually arising from challenging circumstances.
This blog summaries a panel discussion at NGA’s recent clerking conference. The panel discussion was chaired by Sam Tranter, senior advice officer, at NGA who was joined by:
- Sam Dossetter, Company Secretary and Clerk and Governance Support, Nexus Education Schools Trust
- Tajinder Juss, Senior Governance Officer, Cheshire East Council
- Peter Swabey, Policy and Research Director, ICSA/The Chartered Governance Institute
- Amy Wright, Clerking Development Manager, NGA