Lots and lots of people have been writing their lessons for education from lockdown; in among all the activity for school leaders and governing boards, it has clearly been a time of reflection. NGA will be writing more about this from the governing boards’ point of view later in the summer with the extensive data from our annual governance survey 2020, supplemented by focus groups we worked on jointly with Ofsted. But I wanted here to pick up some themes from this last term which have been garnered from all NGA’s work with governing boards and their clerks, through our information and advice work, our virtual networks, our Leading Governance development programmes and of course the experiences of NGA trustees, consultants and staff who govern.
Well done to governing boards and their clerks for transferring to virtual governance, for the most part speedily and effectively. This has been talked about at length in the governance community and there is a clear consensus that boards will keep those elements of governing remotely which have made meetings more efficient, discussions more focused, and saved travel times at the end of the working day. This will probably work best with committee meetings. However, two of NGA’s eight elements of effective governance do require some face-to-face interaction: building relationships based on trust and knowing the school or trust you govern. Many board meetings and strategic discussions with senior leaders will rightly go back to being in the same room, but with the opportunity for some who might otherwise have missed it to join remotely.
So that’s the way in which you conduct business – but on to the more important issue of what that substantive business is. Just as this summer term has been like no other, the autumn term will be different again. Once again boards will need to get that balance right between support and challenge of their senior leader, recalibrating for the recovery phase. Without a doubt the last few months has strengthened the relationships between most senior leaders and their boards: each appreciating the other’s role and the effort and care with which it is carried out. But some key components of governance, in particular that annual review of the vision and the setting of the strategic priorities for the year, have understandably been delayed in some schools and trusts. This suspension can’t continue ad infitinum.
These discussions between boards and senior leaders should be liberating. Of course, the circumstances of the coming year, and the effects of the previous six months on pupils and their families, will need to be taken into account. The ParentKind research published yesterday is a reminder that there will need to be a lot of confidence building before some parents agree to their children returning to school. After the public health situation is considered in the final week of August and the risk assessments and return plans finetuned, good communications with parents will be so important alongside a continued emphasis on the well-being of pupils and the community as a whole.
But I say liberating because we are still in the pause from Ofsted inspections (NGA alongside NAHT and ASCL are in discussions with Ofsted to try and ensure sure the planned collaborative visits in the autumn term really are nothing resembling inspections). Liberating because there are possibilities for teaching and learning that six months ago might have written off as fanciful. Liberating to think about what has been learnt during this COVID period and how the opportunities afforded by technology, by relationships with parents and pupils, and by goodwill and gratitude that has been generated can all be built on. Back to basics: what do we want pupils to be, have done and know then they leave our schools?
Liberating because schools have truly been at the hearts of their communities, offering a service to key workers and vulnerable children while the rest of us stayed at home, and helping to keep poorer children well fed. The conversations about ensuring disadvantaged children get a good education may be better informed, more rounded, after these experiences. The importance of giving poor children a good deal, a fair deal is high on governing board’s agendas; the digital divide has provided yet another reminder of the barriers which need overcoming and in which pupil premium has an important role to play.
Liberating because we do not need to be dictated to by big data; yes, it needs to inform our conversation, but not to tyrannise our leaders. We need only to measure what we value, and do that intelligently: over the summer we will be updating Being Strategic which aims to provide some ideas on how to do this. I have written about the need for more intelligent accountability for some years, but I am hopeful that the coming year might be the one in which we all have the confidence to make it happen, when governing boards take their rightful place in the accountability system for state schools in England.
So many governing boards have had enough after a term of waiting for Government guidance. Our members are very clear: with their school leaders, they want to write their own narratives, engaging staff, parents and pupils, the narrative which is right for their community. This is the real stuff of good governance, accountable governance: thoughtfully generating the narrative and leaving your leaders and staff to live it.
Liberating because we can build on the collaborations, too many to mention, which have strengthened between schools, trusts and other public services during COVID times. It has been a difficult time for all, and for some even more than others. Well-being has risen to the top of so many lists. Our members have told us in no uncertain terms that they have been in awe of the leadership headteachers and senior executives have shown, but they are concerned for the toll it has taken on leaders. So next year one of NGA’s priorities will be promoting the development, diversity and welfare of headteachers and senior leaders, working with so many of the other brilliant initiatives out there to stress the governing board’s role.
So let’s all take a break now; most of us are exhausted. NGA services will continue over the summer for anyone who needs them, but before I end, I need to say (just as you have said to your senior leaders and staff) thank you for everything you have done as governors and trustees to support pupils continuing to receive as much education as possible during the lockdown. It has not been easy, it is a great responsibility but it is a good thing that you do. Thank you and enjoy a refreshing summer.