Last February NGA began a Visible Governance campaign to raise the profile of school and trust governance and it got off to a wonderful start before having to be suspended as COVID-19 hit the country. Deciding whether it was the right thing to bring this back in early 2021 was tricky especially as the planning had to begin a few months ago. Thankfully the announcement in my annual address during lockdown 2 was not greeted with derision: indeed there were some hurrahs in the conference chat. We are hoping that lots of activity will be able to done remotely during lockdown 3 and beyond.
So why is this happening? It is not simply because we want to pat NGA members on the back and say thank you (although expressions of appreciation never goes amiss, particularly in a year like this one). More fundamentally we want to spread knowledge and understanding of governance.
The need for visible governance is also recognised by our members. When asked about the importance of the campaign to their board, respondents to our recent membership survey gave it an average importance score of 4 out of 5. They recognise its importance in recruiting more volunteers, in ensuring that governance does not go unnoticed in the national education conversation and in supporting boards to carry out their role more effectively.
For too long I have been saying the school system not only needs to value its volunteers more, it needs to value governance more. I’m sorry that under my leadership, NGA’s activities have not managed to transform that, even after a series of Department for Education ministers who have understood the importance of governance, and indeed championed it in the department. So the Visible Governance campaign represents a change of strategy: instead of relying on quiet, backroom discussion with the powers that be to effect change, we need a mass uprising. There are a quarter of a million people governing schools and trusts in England, and if they are not going to be handed the recognition they 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 are they volunteer.
School and trust governance is almost always invisible when it is working well, and very much in the spotlight when things go wrong. Governing schools is largely a back room operation, with much confidential information, not something done in the glare of publicity. The idea of governance happening behind closed doors, out of sight, has been in the literature for some time. Research on governing bodies published by CfBT (now Education Development Trust) 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.
We have also said for years that organisations with good governance do not fail. But I am conscious that that is rather a deficit vision. School and trust governance is in fact a force for good, not an insurance policy to pick up the pieces when things go amiss. It is a central component of a successful organisation. Governing boards exist not just to stop things going horribly wrong: they 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: this has always been central to good governance, but never so obviously as in 2020.
However there is even more to the role than that: 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 school governors and academy trustees are in. Making key decisions, setting the vision and the strategic direction, using their power and influence for the good of children and young people, taking into account the views and experiences of key stakeholders. The education of the nation’s children is such an absolutely vital public service, and governing boards are the guardians of this on behalf of the nation. There are so many good people up and down the length and breadth of this county contributing to children’s education and schools’ sustainability.
I know that governors and trustees volunteer to make a difference to children and young people - they don’t volunteer for the recognition – and they are busy people. However, if you can take one small visible action to advocate for what you do and the difference it can make, collectively it will in fact further improve the lives of children and their communities. So our message to governors, trustees, clerks and everyone who values the importance of governance is to be bold, be positive and be noticed. Collective action and a bit more noise should lead to more people volunteering, people who had previously never considered school governance. We will always need that supply of new volunteers. 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 interests of children. It is a wonderful example of citizen service; you might even call it participatory democracy.
Making the role more prominent will also further improve the education of pupils through more effective engagement with stakeholders, and a better understanding across schools and trusts of the benefits and practice of good governance. During the pandemic, many boards have been more visible than usual and strengthened further their relationship with school leaders; we will build on that.
The Visible Governance in Schools campaign will run throughout 2021, celebrating the power of governance, the people that volunteer for the role, the professionals who support them and the value that good governance brings to the school system.
One of the first activities in celebrating governance has been this week’s opening of applications for the Outstanding Governance Awards 2021: please consider nominating your board, your clerk or governance professional, or another. NGA is always asked for case studies of what good looks like – this opportunity to really push for those only comes every two years. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to read these applications, and this year we have tried to make the application process more streamlined than ever.
We all, I’m sure, absolutely want reasons to celebrate in 2021. There has never been a better time for positive stories. Please share your successes.
For information on how to get involved in Visible Governance visit the campaign page.