Kirstie Ebbs

Author: Kirstie Ebbs

03/07/2020 12:25:53

Clerks and those providing clerking services have had to adapt quickly to virtual governance – how did they do it, what opportunities and challenges did they face, and how will it impact future practice? Sharing their experience in this blog are: 

  • Tajinder Juss, Senior Governance Officer in the School Governance and Liaison Team at Cheshire East Council. The team, led Mike Harris, Service Manager, services more than 70 maintained schools and MATs across Cheshire East. The qualified team of 12 governance professionals is supported by a central governance office in Crewe.
  • Wendy Randle, an independent clerk to several boards in the South West.
  • Lisa Pipes, senior trust director for HR and governance at The Education Alliance multi academy trust which has six schools across Yorkshire and the Humber. Lisa oversees a team of three clerks.

How did you adapt in the immediate aftermath of school closures and moving to virtual meetings?

Tajinder: Our initial task was to identify the most appropriate platform to use to support our schools. The most obvious choices were Cisco Webex, Skype and Zoom, with which some of the team were familiar. There was much trial and error at first, as colleagues attempted to set up meetings with each other just to get a feel of hosting on a virtual platform. This allowed us to explore the limitations and foibles of the different systems. As I remember, this was an extremely busy time, as we made concerted efforts to carefully select the right system. To further complicate matters, an upgrade to our IT and computing systems (much anticipated) was brought forward so not only were we developing the ability to host virtual meetings, we were managing the roll-out of our new-look IT system. We chose to use Microsoft Teams which has since proved to be our platform of choice.

Wendy: I quickly liaised with all boards to schedule an extraordinary meeting to approve a virtual meeting policy and the use of Chair’s action in academy settings.  I became an obsessive reader overnight – I read anything and everything to try and make sense of the situation to ensure I was guiding boards correctly; I also attended webinars and virtual networking sessions.  The use of social media networking sites provided the opportunity to consider all viewpoints before following a course of action.  Communication with heads/ CEOs and chairs intensified and I put in place means of quick communication to keep boards engaged – luckily not a single board used these to send Gifs or talk about the weather which was a relief!  I reviewed the board priorities with the chairs and heads/ CEOs to create focused agendas, also providing guidance notes against agenda items for chairs, as they ventured into the world of virtual meetings.

Lisa: Our CEO initiated regular discussions via Teams with our Chair and Vice-Chair of the Trust Board, and they agreed that we would initially replace our usual Board meetings with virtual update meetings instead. Discussion points included business critical decisions, communication plans, risk management, national and local guidance, workforce updates and finance updates in relation to Covid 19. We also considered any changes we might need to make to enable the trust and its schools to be able to operate effectively during lockdown.  This included reviewing the scheme of delegation, and where slight changes were proposed, they were reviewed against the scope of the trust’s Governance Framework and the Articles of Association. The Board agreed to amendments where required, such as financial decision-making powers, to enable the trust to respond to Covid 19 swiftly and effectively. The Vice-Chair and the Director of HR and Governance discussed how Board and LGB meetings could continue to commence, safely and effectively, during the Covid 19 lockdown period.  The Vice-Chair shared his experiences of other committees he is involved with, and we agreed to use Microsoft Teams as a secure, safe and effective method for virtual meetings. The Vice-Chair suggested we double up our Governance Clerks to ensure that any technical issues could be resolved without affecting minute taking, therefore we arranged for two Governance Clerks to attend each virtual meeting (one to take minutes and the other to resolve any technical issues any of the Governors might experience).  This allowed meetings to flow, whilst technical issues were resolved without affecting or delaying the overall meeting.

What were the greatest opportunities and challenges in clerking virtual meetings?

Tajinder: The most immediate challenge that we have faced has been the coaching of governors who have felt unsure or unfamiliar with the software (entirely understandable). We organised one to one trial demonstrations of the MS Teams software with individual governors to reassure them of the ease with which the system can be used. In addition to the practical difficulties of hosting virtual meetings - like the loss of connectivity during the recent electrical storms - there was a rapid learning of best practices and work-arounds, as we started to develop a virtual meeting etiquette and policy. Virtual meetings, while initially perceived to be less personable and socially engaging than traditional face-to-face meetings, our experience has been that videoconferencing can make for more effective meetings, with sufficient social interaction for the business to work effectively. The technology means that interruptions must be carefully managed otherwise the flow of the meeting can become disjointed. In addition, the platform enforces a greater discipline among governors and the clerk to wait for fellow governors to make their contributions; there are fewer distractions (…including biscuits!). As with all aspects of the Cheshire East’s response to the COVID19 pandemic - the response had to be swift, and effective.  The rapid deployment of a single IT platform has enabled the team to meet the fast-paced challenges of providing support to governors and school leaders. Our governance professionals have made meetings efficient and productive, reassuring Boards and Headteachers that business can continue without coming together physically.

Wendy: The biggest opportunity was building and improving team dynamics as we all pulled together to make sense of the new ‘normal’.  The boards were supportive when holding schools to account and were mindful of staff wellbeing – the virtual aspect of the meetings providing a little humour in difficult times.  Some boards had been a little apprehensive at first, but they have all now embraced virtual meetings. I explored a number of ways to take minutes whilst being able to view the papers and all participants without having too many devices running at once – I’ve finally found a way, yet I still cannot figure out how to connect earphones to my laptop via Bluetooth! The biggest challenge was the constant communication.  I was pleased that the boards and schools were seeking my advice, though being a self employed clerk responsible for a number of schools, it was sometimes difficult juggling the constant phone calls and emails, especially during the week leading into lockdown!

Lisa: The Governance Clerks contacted every Trustee and Governor individually and tested their technical capability for attending virtual meetings (e.g. checked they had the facilities in place to enable this) and they also arranged test runs with each one to ensure the technology worked, prior to any virtual meetings taking place.  We were able to fully support our Trustees and Governors, and have held Board meetings and LGB meetings very successfully throughout the lockdown period.  For each meeting we have had a Governance Clerk taking minutes and another resolving any technical issues, supporting individuals where issues occurred.  We have experienced a high level of attendance for all our meetings, and using the chat function has enabled quieter members of our groups to participate.  The CEO has attended each LGB meeting to provide an update on the trust’s approach to Covid 19, and communications for staff and parents have been shared with Trustees and Governors.  School risk assessments have also been shared in draft form for comments, and regular updates are provided, included the impact of Covid 19 for students, staff, finances and capital projects.  The functionality of Microsoft Teams has allowed people to share documents online as they have discussed them in meetings, allowing the full group to see and participate, and use of the ‘holding your hand up’ function has allowed meetings to progress professionally, without attendees talking over each other.  The ability to see documents online has reduced the amount of paper we send to our Governors and Trustees, which is better for the environment and also reduced data protection risks. We have developed a guidance document for Trustees and Governors, to help them use Teams confidently. We have a Governance Portal, which has enabled us to share information with Trustees and Governors, safely and securely. 

How will what you have learned and experienced with virtual clerking impact future practice?

Tajinder: There is a strong possibility that virtual meetings will remain a welcome fixture of the governor meeting calendar, particularly for smaller committees.  Scheduling an extraordinary meeting is now much easier. Governors are much more relaxed, meetings can be more convivial as individuals join from the comfort of their own homes or offices. They do not have to face a journey home especially during the winter months, which provides an additional environmental benefit. We can bid a (not so) fond farewell to uncomfortable (primary school) chairs! As one Headteacher remarked to me recently, virtual meetings could spell the end of eating cold dinners at 10pm! Having recognised the value of virtual meetings, their use has already been extended to, both formal and informal meetings within the Cheshire East Governance team. Our Governance Service has also successfully conducted interviews in recent weeks using MS Teams. In the longer term, virtual clerking opens up a completely new landscape and provides a unique opportunity for Cheshire East to offer its services further afield and outside the borough.

Wendy: Going forward I’ll advise boards to consider what meetings could be held virtually.  Assuming there is a steady WiFi connection, virtual meetings are accessible and remove some of the barriers, such as time and travel, for people joining boards. In addition to meetings there are other board functions that could be supported using virtual technology such as governor/ trustee induction, monitoring visits and training – I’ve experienced all three recently and they all worked well. I’d like to unpick why scheduling meetings became so much easier – was this due to people having greater availability or was it the impact of virtual meetings requiring less time?

Lisa: Virtual meetings have worked very well, and they have enabled some of our more vulnerable Trustees and Governors, who are self-isolating, to continue to be involved in decision-making.  We have found that our Trustees and Governors have been able to access virtual meetings easily, which has meant we have been able to arrange meetings at short notice, and with good levels of attendance and high levels of engagement and involvement.  We have been able to track action plans and provide regular updates, sharing the work ongoing in our schools and within the community.  It is likely that as we move out of lockdown in the future, we will need to continue to shield some of our Trustees and Governors, and we may hold hybrid meetings, enabling Trustees and Governors to attend meetings face-to-face and remotely.  This also means staff can attend meetings without travelling to various sites, which is a more efficient way of operating and it aligns with our Workload Charter and Sustainability Strategy.

NGA continues to produce up-to-date COVID-19 specific guidance in our knowledge centre, including FAQs. Today, we updated our guidance on business continuity. NGA also continues to offer our GOLDline advice service to all governing boards on specific queries relating to coronavirus. To contact the GOLDline, please email gold@nga.org.uk or call 0121 237 3782.

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