Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

17/12/2021 13:08:08

We are finishing 2021 rather as we started it with schools in a state of uncertainty of yet another COVID-19 wave. During the last Christmas holidays I was one of the leaders of the national representative organisations called into the last Secretary of State for Education’s office – virtually, with no quizzes or refreshments – to discuss the ‘do schools open fully; don’t we open fully’ conundrum. I am not expecting that call this winter – but who knows where we will be in a week’s or so time? Many schools are looking again at their remote education offer, just in case.

This week I received this email from an NGA member: "In my 30 years as a governor, I can honestly say that this last term has been the most challenging ever." It has indeed been relentless, exhausting, requiring solutions to never before encountered challenges. Reserves have had to be plundered – I’m not meaning the bank, but reserves of energy, of patience, of optimism, of adaptability.

Resilience has been the name of the game for the whole country but particularly for school leaders, problem solving in day-in day-out, juggling the needs of all – pupils first and foremost of course, but also staff, parents and communities. An NHS source told me that resilience is strongest when people are bought into their mission; adaptable; confident; and have coping activities and support networks.

Given this backdrop, you have risen to the challenge; leaders have risen to the challenge; together as an education community we have collectively done well. Schools have risen to the challenge. In March, NGA published our state of the nation report on the governance of multi academy trusts: MATs Moving Forward, one of our contributions to ensuring trusts can deliver on their mission. But in communities, it is the school itself which is the focus, providing a place of safety for pupils, but often for the wider family with fewer options to turn to as other services – both public and third sector – struggle to meet the demand. That is an important thing that schools do.

In this long year, between the periods of uncertainty, there has also been much joy and laughter as more and more children and young people returned to school - seeing friends, teachers - re-establishing relationships and social connections that give us succour and a sense of belonging. Even us adults have enjoyed seeing each other again: our Outstanding Governance Awards ceremony on the House of Commons terrace in September was full of excitement and celebration.

Have we all got those coping activities firmly in place? – sport and exercise, music, art and other forms of culture, reading for pleasure, hobbies, good food, and of course friendship, all those things that make life rich and joyful. Support networks of course mean family and friends, but professional ones are very much needed too. Does your headteacher or chief executive take part in peer networks? Do they have a coach or mentor? They need to know they are not alone with the pressures that they are facing. Talking to another leader who has walked in those shoes is affirming and will sustain the confidence of leadership.

Governing boards rely on their professional advisers and administrators, your governance professionals. After many years of our Clerking Matters campaign to raise the recognition of their valiant work, 2021 seems like the beginning of a breakthrough, with the Department for Education setting up a working group and NGA’s second state of the nation report of the year: Governance professionals 2021 and beyond. One profession across trusts and schools learning together, developing together, supported by NGA making the case to governing boards to value and reward their governance professionals. Thank you for what you have done to sustain good governance and support governing boards this year.

2021 was also a year in which many more people took ownership of equality, diversity and inclusion among boards, leadership, staff and pupils, a commitment to whole organisation approaches. NGA played our part with our third state of the nation report, this time on the increasing participation of the under-represented groups on governing boards. A coalition of national organisations came together with a statement of intent: there is commitment to being in this for the long-term with action to make a difference. Nadim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, also underlined his commitment to diverse boards last month at NGA’s annual conference.

This term’s reports from the annual school and trust governance survey showed that for the first time for years funding was knocked off the top of the list of concerns of governing boards across the  country – and replaced by pupil wellbeing, with leadership retention, development and wellbeing in  third place. Second place was a real surprise – managing and improving premises – but very understandable in a year of COVID-19 and gives me a chance to thank all those business staff and leaders who behind the scenes made sure school buildings were fit for a pandemic purposes and that technology was available for teaching remotely.

2021 has certainly been the year when wellbeing came out across the sector – so many reports recently repeating the need to focus on wellbeing as fundamental part of education, not an optional extra. Thanks to Well Schools for providing a mighty collaboration for resources.

Thanks also to the Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Sousa for conducting the Big Ask and bringing pupil voice into the mainstream – an illuminating keynote presentation at our recent conference on the needs and dreams of children and young people helps provide that all important focus for governance. COVID-19 dented very slightly governing boards’ ability to listening to their stakeholders this year, but the commitment to this being a fundamental part of accountable governance is growing. 

The three things that I have been asked to talk about this year most often – as well of course as the ever present good governance and trust governance (NGA’s bread and butter) – are wellbeing; culture (this time I mean organisational, not the arts) and collaboration. They are linked, all pushing in the same direction. That feels like a cause for celebration – under your leadership schools and trusts are getting their priorities right. Let’s not be deflected, undermined by those who do not have the wisdom to see that. Let’s have confidence in the priorities you are setting at organisational level and increasingly across local partnerships.

That fourth aspect of resilience: the mission of education is certainly strong. And it is of course why most of you volunteer to govern. You have survived a tremendously difficult year; you have served, supporting your schools, with little recognition. Look after yourselves too: make sure you have those coping activities and support networks. Have a restful relaxing holiday with a break from doing - just be, and I hope it is a very happy sense of being.

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