Fiona is NGA's policy and projects manager, and governs at an alternative provision school.
At the very heart of all we do at NGA is our aim to improve the educational standards and wellbeing of children and young people. Last year I left frontline education after 16 years of service, it was that line on NGA’s website that grabbed my attention. But that is only half of the sentence, it goes on to say, by increasing the effectiveness of governing boards and promoting high standards.
The role the governing board has in prioritising a school or trust’s strategic priorities should never be underestimated, but all too often that governance role is undervalued. In our quest to support and equip you to do the very best you can, we launch our annual governance survey each year to capture your voice and find out what matters most to you so that we can continue to strive to meet our aim. Today we see the publication of our policy report - Priorities, resources and people: school governance in 2021, which provides a narrative on your experience in governance, your views and your concerns. This report gives us an opportunity to show everyone the critical nature of a board’s strategic thinking and the very real power of governance decision making.
The last 18 months have been unprecedented. The pandemic has brought with it confusion and disorientation within our education system, through which schools, trusts and individual boards have maintained a calm and collected approach to the challenges, quickly and positively redirecting their focus, keeping their pupils at the centre. Looking forward, with so much to rethink and reevaluate in the wake of the pandemic, how do boards decide what to identify as their most pressing priorities? To help address this question, this year we decided to ask governing boards’ what their top three strategic priorities were, to see if we could separate the most pressing matters from other important issues.
Well, you spoke, and with 45% of respondents stating that pupil wellbeing and mental health is a top strategic priority for their school or trust, we heard you loud and clear. It is evidently an issue that you care passionately about. Pupils will need support of varying degrees as they navigate their way through what is already a phase in their live full of confusing changes and big decisions, and that’s at the best of times.
During my time working on the frontline in education, I got to work with some of the most inspirational people I have ever met and potentially ever will meet, the pupils. The resilience they demonstrated in the face of some of the most distressing circumstances was awe inspiring and taught me a thing or two about facing my own adversities. I say this because while caring for our pupils and addressing the ordeals they have faced over the last 18 months, it is important that we don’t disempower them in that, and remember they are more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for. This resilience can give us an alternative foundation to build on when addressing their wellbeing and mental health.
As governing boards, you are in the unique position to drive an inclusive vision that sees pupils set up for life. You can spearhead that focus on the future equipment your school or trust is giving pupils, not just through knowledge and skills, but learning to prioritise mental health and in turn benefiting from a rich and successful educational experience. In the June edition of our Governing Matters magazine, NGA’s Elizabeth Collin challenges boards to take stock of where we are and what we need to prioritise for our settings by reviewing our practice and asking how wellbeing features in our COVID-19 recovery plans, in our culture and ethos, in our school or trust policies and the curriculum. We are seeing this cultural shift really taking off at pace in lots of schools and trusts, but not all. That being said it should never be seen as a compliance issue for the board, but one that is woven into the ambitions of the board for current and future pupils.
We often talk about policy areas or priorities as isolated topics for discussion, but there is so much connection between them. As a former PE teacher, I can’t resist a good anatomy and physiology analogy… so think of it like the body, it’s an amazing structure made up of loads of different parts, some bigger than others, some we are more familiar with than others, all important in their own right but all connected in one way or another, and equally, all dependent on each other in some way.
In the same way, when considering what to prioritise, some areas will need greater attention, time and money but other, less spoken about issues, hold no less importance to the overall running of a school. The Department for Education’s (DfE) guidance on mental health and behaviour in schools states “The culture, ethos and environment of the school can have a profound influence on both pupil and staff mental wellbeing”. This of course includes the physical environment. Managing and improving premises was second on the list of the top priorities for governors and trustees this year - we don’t have definitive answers as to why this is, but aside from the obvious reasons around disrepair, maintenance, COVID-19 modifcations etc, it is worth noting that the environment we live, work or learn in does influence the way we feel and how effectively we work. Studies over the years have linked the physical environment to staff and pupil wellbeing and outcomes.
Whatever your strategic priorities are this year and over the coming years, remember that you, your staff and your pupils know your school best, so listen to their voices, take confidence in your own and let that be the driving force. We look forward to hearing your voice again next year.