Release date: 28/11/2020

At the National Governance Association's annual conference on 28 November 2020, our chief executive Emma Knights gave the annual address to members. Here is a written copy of the speech which may appear slightly different to delivery:

It is my privilege to have led the National Governance Association for another year, and what a year it has been. As we crowded into one of Birmingham’s ICC halls for the 2019 Annual Conference, who would have thought this year we would be meeting virtually and conducting our AGM remotely. As a membership organisation, this has provided some real opportunities to reach more governors, trustees and clerks through webinars and virtual events, but as someone who travelled far and wide across England before COVID-19 restrictions began, I have missed the more informal conversations with members, seeing how the context is different in different places, listening to you relating in your own words the challenges and joys of governing. However the work of NGA – our impact and what you have been saying to us – is the topic of our AGM which begins at 3.30, and until then our focus is firmly on you, your roles, your schools and trusts, and most importantly of course the pupils they educate, the reason why you volunteer.

The way in which the governance community moved from meeting in person to governing remotely with very little fuss was impressive. Very well done to governing boards and their clerks for transferring to virtual governance, for the most part speedily and effectively. The advantages we had not envisaged before has over the past few month been talked about at length in the governance community. 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 really 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 when it is safe to do so, but perhaps with the opportunity for some who might otherwise have missed it to join remotely. I know many of you are missing visiting schools – it is that aspect of governance which reminds you most of your mission, what brought you to volunteer in the first place.

So that’s the way in which you conduct business – but let’s move on to the more important issue of what that substantive business is: ensuring children and young people get the best possible education so that they leave your school onto the next stage of life able to thrive. Both the summer term and autumn term have been like no other: that already delicate balance between support and challenge of senior leaders shifted significantly last term to support as they had to deal with his unchartered territory. We were then expecting the balance to be recalibrated again for what we had hoped would be the recovery phase with full opening so that there was proportionate questioning and reflection, but which for most has involved some teachers, other staff and pupils having to isolate.

Many of the frustrations of working with the Department for Education during this COVID period are well documented, including in the focus groups of governors and trustees we conducted jointly with Ofsted last term. NGA has been involved in the consultative forums at national level, but in recent weeks I have become more and more perplexed by the lack of understanding that the effects are so different in different settings: the virus’ effect and transmission is so affected by age, but on top of that the contexts of the different phases of education, from early years to sixth forms through special school settings and alternative provision, are all so very different. The way in which infection controls can be practiced – handwashing; social distancing; the size of bubbles; face masks; staggered pick up and drop offs; and movement round the building varies with the premises.  Also what can vary is the travel, behaviour and the number of contacts outside school, and then of course the local R rate. What teaching absolutely needs to be in person in school is also variable with age.  We all want as many children as possible to be in the classroom with a teacher: that is a better form of education than managing remotely from home.

At present the DfE’s policy-making process is slow to understand what is actually happening in different schools. I can’t imagine there is anyone listening to this address who is not fully behind maintaining the continuity of education: and I am sure you will correct me in the ‘chat’ if my assumption is wrong.  So the question is who makes the decisions about how best to achieve that for as much pupils as possible. Shouldn’t there be more discretion given to school and trust leaders, overseen by their governing boards, to make the decisions, using of course the advice of public health experts? Rather than much promised autonomy, centralised dictat has been the order of the day. For some months now NGA has been pressing the DfE to consider allowing more discretion to school and trust leadership, overseen by their governing boards, so that the best options for continuing to educate pupils can be taken, whether that is in the school buildings, remotely or a planned combination of those methods. This address has been brewing for a few weeks now, but Geoff Barton, the supremely eloquent General Secretary of ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders) has beaten me to it with his latest columns in TES. Who can make the best operational education decisions: school and trust leaders or civil servants, even if not all of them reside in Whitehall right now.

I do not underestimate how this sort of critical decision making is stressful for leaders – they are being looked to by their staff, the parents, their pupils and their community, for leadership like never before. And not all of those stakeholders are pushing for the same approach - the British people encompass a wide spectrum of people from those who are highly anxious about the virus and put avoiding that risk above all else to those who think it is a fiction. But neither is it helpful to have one hand tied behind your back. Many are finding school and trust leadership lonely and beleaguered. 

That is why you – NGA’s membership is so crucial – you offer the sounding board that leaders need.  That is why governing boards exist – to add the wisdom of a number of heads, and prevent one person, no matter how able, from having to carry the entire weight of difficult, complex decisions. Better decisions are made when leaders are not exhausted. In our 2020 annual governance survey, staff wellbeing was second in the list of most common top concerns and that response was fairly early during the pandemic – and we know from all NGA’s contact with governing boards since that the wellbeing of senior leaders at present is a particular concern. Governing boards cannot use a magic wand, but you can have a conversation about the leader’s well-being, the topic we covered at our seminar on Thursday, the recording of which is available for all NGA members to watch.  There have been several recent reports of increasing numbers of headteachers who want to leave the profession or possibly retire early after getting their school through the COVID period: it is the governing board’s role to make that job sustainable. That’s not an easy ask, but whoever claimed governance was easy.

Before the pandemic the DfE commissioned NFER to undertake some research into school governance, a rare occurrence, and reassuringly confirmed what NGA knows – but there were some new nuggets. Nine out of ten executive leaders feel well supported and challenged by their governing board. I am quite often told anecdotally that this is not the case, but now I will be able to quote this data: 89% of executive leaders agree that they feel adequately supported and 91% agree that they feel adequately challenged and scrutinised. Of course there is room for improvement, and there is one in every ten leaders feeling unsupported by their governing board, which needs correcting. I am not complacent, but all the feedback suggests that without a doubt the last six months, since that research, has strengthened the relationships between most senior leaders and their boards: each with a greater appreciation of the other’s role and the effort and care with which it is carried out. 

At the end of the summer term when we hoping that England was recovering from COVID, I wrote a hugely optimistic blog, arguing that there would be some liberation in the autumn term without Ofsted inspections,  with new possibilities for teaching and learning tried for the first time during this COVID period, liberating because we do not need to be dictated to by the big data of performance tables. This may be a real spur to measure what we value, and do that intelligently: I have written about the need for more intelligent accountability for some years, but I am hopeful that this academic year might be the one in which 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 had had enough after a term of waiting for Government guidance.  The messages we were receiving from you, our members  have been clear: with your school leaders, you want to write your 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 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, helping to keep poorer children well fed. The Government’s Social Mobility Commission tells us 600,000 more children are in poverty since 2012 and that was Before the pandemic. The official data will not be available for some time, but Institute for Public Policy Research has undertaken some modelling which suggests another 1.1 million people face poverty at end of 2020. No matter how good your Maths teacher is – and we of course want all pupils to have excellent Maths teachers – this will not solve all that makes learning less likely – not enough food, not enough books, no quiet space at home, no laptop and no WiFi. Situations which our schools encounter every day in day out, and are needing to find ways to support children learning in less than ideal situations.

Disadvantage was one of our four conference seminars; and on Monday I was reminded of work that was central in my previous role in early years: 25 years ago disadvantaged four-year-olds in the US were found to have heard 30 million fewer words than other children. This is a staggering number and there is some dispute over its exactitude, but what isn’t disputed is that researchers have also identified a difference in the type and quality of interactions with words experienced by less well-off children, with quality and quantity found to be of equal importance. That gap in speech, language, and communication is a powerful force in holding children back, affecting their achievement and wellbeing into adulthood. That seems a fairly common sense conclusion, but much has been written on this, including research from the Institute of Education in 2006, which found the quality and quantity of children's vocabulary at age five is a strong predictor of how well they are doing aged 34. Meanwhile, nearly two thirds - 65 per cent - of young offenders have been found to have previously unidentified speech, language and communication needs.  Schools cannot regularly solve a family’s housing crisis (although I am sure some of you will know times where that has happened), but schools are such important engines for tackling this language gap: if you struggle to read and to communicate ideas orally, you are going to struggle to learn and to flourish at school. Often our focus in the school system is on the qualifications young people achieve at age 16 and 18, but we neglect the early years not at our peril, but those that of the very young people we are educating.  Those of you who govern in nursery and infant settings will already be engaged in this subject, but I thought it was worth reminding all of us of this fundamental requirement in a school system committed to reducing – eradicating – the disadvantage gap.

The conversations about ensuring disadvantaged children get a good education may be better informed, more rounded, after the experiences of the last nine months. The importance of giving poor children a good deal, a fair deal we know is high on governing boards’ 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.

Let me now turn to the role of schools in their wider communities: if it was in any dispute whether schools are at the heart of their communities, alongside the NHS, one of the most visible of public services, the importance of schools in the fabric of our society has surely been clearly demonstrated. In many areas local collaborations have strengthened – and not just between schools and trusts, but also other public services. That is healthy not just for education, but for the greater public sphere. 

Divisions in our society have been plaguing us for some years now (actually my husband is a historian and he would correct that to centuries, millenia) and I see school governorship as a force for good in helping to bring our society together locally in these difficult times. That is not a novel thought: it harks back to conversations of community cohesion which s not a phrase we hear much nowadays – it is a little clunky. I have recently been approached by Talk/together, the UK’s biggest-ever public conversation about what divides and unites us. It is coordinated by Talk/Together, a new broad coalition, including household names like the NHS, the BBC and ITV and the Scouts and Guides, as well as local organisations from across the UK. Its overarching aim is to bring people together and bridge divides, to help build a kinder, closer and more connected society. Talk/together is also meeting with local stakeholders from civil society, councils, faith and business across the UK to get their input on the changes we need to see. The project is keen to hear from governors about the role that schools can play, and I would say often do already play as places where children from across the community come together.  A new 'Schools' section will shortly be launching on the website with a short survey that governors will be invited to complete. NGA will keep you abreast of this campaign, which fits well with the Framework for Ethical Leadership in education: you may remember kindness is one of the seven virtues it promotes. 

Before I leave the topic of community, I need to recognise that half of you attending today will be governing within multi academy trusts, either on the board of trustees or an academy committee. This has been growing over the past ten years, and contrary to popular belief, NGA membership is slightly skewed towards academy trusts.  But we have not yet got to the point where all MATs are tackling well the challenges posed by governing a group of schools. The challenge is not actually the switch to charity and company law; charities have been around for hundreds of years, and the rules and regulations are not difficult to get your head round, especially if you have a governance professional to advise you and to look out the right resources which are not difficult to find: they are laid out in Welcome to a Multi Academy Trust. In practice it is the scale which introduces new challenges to traditional school governance, the responsibility of many schools. It is knowing how much the trustees and the executive should delegate to academy level and how much the board of trustees must see and decide for themselves. Local governance - or the role of those academy committees, called LGBs by most trusts - has been controversial with some predictions of their demise.  But in 2020 we see their existence in some form or other in almost all MATs; and our Annual Governance Survey shows that increasing number of those governing locally are positive about their MAT with 73% of those agreeing that their voices were heard by executive leaders and trustees in the decision making process. However that leaves over a quarter of  MATs where this is not yet working (as well as those who do not have local governance at all).  We know of volunteers who have left academy committees because they felt their time was not being used well. In fact there are hugely important roles for academy level governors to perform. They are the eyes and ears of the trustees at academy level. You will remember that knowing your organisation is one of the eight elements of effective governance and how can trustees get the range of information they need from across the MAT; getting that balance of breadth and depth without stepping into the operational is key. Breadth requires our old friend triangulation: all information should not be mediated by headteachers and executives. If it is, it fails the test of good governance.  Fundamental to good governance is diversity, balance, good questioning, independent thinking and elimination of the conflicts of interest. Not interest itself – there would be no commitment without an interest in the organisation being governed – but other interests which prevent objectivity. Academy committees packed with trust executives also fail the test of good governance: that is about seeking control and minimising accountability.  There’s at least one MAT where the decisive reason that local governance has been retained is because Ofsted expects it: this also demonstrates a misunderstanding of governance. This thank goodness is rare: trustees at our Community MATs network last term spoke with one voice about the important role of their academy committees: one saying: “I do not know how we would have managed without them during the summer term testing risk assessments for each school.”

So my challenge to MAT boards who have not had an external review of governance: look outwards, be brave and open yourselves to scrutiny. You need that to report to your trust Members anyway at your AGM. 

There is another failure of MAT governance which needs rectifying is the considerable number of trusts still relying on the same people volunteering on more than one layer of governance: unlike so much in governance, this is not hard to fix. If you are one of those people, just resign from the second layer.

Some of you will know that Martin Matthews, a National Leader of Governance, sadly died unexpectedly this term– and while given there are quarter of a million volunteers this is not an unheard of event. Why Martin is worthy of mention is that he exemplified so many of the qualities needed for good governance.  Martin did all with a combination of head and heart: his commitment to helping others was huge, displaying such generosity and kindness. Kindness is sometimes thought to indicate that you are a bit of a pushover, but that’s so wrong.  Martin was an independent thinker – he was an innovative thinker and had the courage to say what he thought. In our Power of Governance publication last year, we said that the system has not thought enough about the role of very large MATs in the system, and Martin suggested that the appointments to their boards should happen through the public appointments route. I think he was onto something there: it is worth a debate given that schools are such an important public service.

Martin also thought the system, including NGA (though he made the point to me very politely), had neglected to think about sanctions for governors and trustees who lead their schools or trusts into decline or disrepute, writing in Schools Week: ‘We must fix this as part of the continuous improvement of our system. Shirking the chance to fix this is not an option. We wouldn’t be happy if our children were taught by a “struck-off” teacher. Why do we accept a school being governed by a governor who has walked away from failure?’

How do governing boards ensure that their schools do not fail their pupils. Last week National Association of HeadTeachers’ School Improvement Commission reported with a positive vision for the future of education in this country, and at the heart of this vision is the belief that schools are only as good as the people that work in them.  While there are some recommendations for the Department for Education, particularly as regards subsidising the costs of development, the more powerful message which comes over loud and clear is that we do not need the government to mandate a shift in culture and approach.

It is the role of the school leader to create the conditions in which teachers and other staff can thrive so that pupils can succeed. The report goes onto say: ‘Governing boards are expected to work closely with senior leaders to set a school’s vision, ethos and strategic direction. As such, they can play an important role in helping to establish a culture where teacher and leader CPD is valued and prioritised’. This endeavor is absolutely not a single-handed task; in fact it will fail if it is attempted from a heroic standpoint. The leader and board need to be as one in creating a healthy culture.

At NGA discussion of the importance of organisational culture began quite a few years ago, but it has really taken up a pace now and it features in our good governance graphic. In our annual conference seminar series this week, we touched on culture each day: on Monday, a culture for learning and aspiration, built on evidence; on Tuesday a culture for diversity, equity and inclusion, Wednesday  a culture for improvement and development, and Thursday on a culture for staff well-being.

People who do the leadership conference circuit will know the famous Peter Drucker quote: ‘Culture trumps strategy every time: culture eats strategy for breakfast; but the other half of this musing is not repeated so often:  ‘As strategy at odds with the culture is doomed’. So it is not that we give up on that first core function of governance, setting strategic direction towards the organisation’s vision, but we must make sure that there is synergy between the two as we cover in Being Strategic.

It was a real privilege to be part of NAHT’s Commission and it is so refreshing to see Continuous professional development (CPD) placed firmly and convincingly at the heart of school improvement, rather than a raft of separate initiatives. It would seem an omission for a school or trust strategy not to feature CPD as a priority. Developing the staff’s talents and knowledge will create success. I appreciate at the moment short-term survival is the name of the game, but shortly these conversations about medium-term improvement can begin again. So governing boards need to demonstrate their ‘buy-in’ to the importance of CPD, sometimes a bit tricky where funding is scarse. But asking questions about ongoing CPD and its impact at board meetings is a start, requesting a paper on the topic.  Modelling it in the way in which senior leaders are held account, making development a core feature of appraisal, ensuring head teachers are accessing their own entitlement to mentoring and other CPD, and encouraging fruitful collaborations with other outside the school or trust. And of course investing in your own CPD as I know so many of you listening today already do, but others more detached may not.

Let’s make 2021 the year of school improvement through CPD – not the greatest of rallying cries. The Commission suggests that the the current external accountability system, generally perceived as high-stakes by senior leaders, is a powerful tool for driving compliance to minimum standards but a poor one for creating excellence within a system. To improve standards further, the Commission identifies a need to rebalance holding schools to account with enabling them to improve. Governing boards can balance and even re-balance those two: they can both hold leaders to account and enable them to improve, encouraging and trusting leaders and staff to take up the mantle of learning themselves as well as teaching. Many already enthusiastically do, but elsewhere leaders are waiting for permission, a permission they do not need: but which is all part of this cultural change.

Governing boards: you have huge power and influence here, possibly more than you realise. Please use it to put CPD for all at the centre of your school or trust’s improvement strategy. Let’s not wait to be told what to do by the powers who be, but instead empower school leadership to take the initiative, to clear the clutter and focus on developing staff in order to provide the best possible education for pupils.

Many of you will know that NGA has added a fourth core function for governing boards to the three in the DfE’s Governance Handbook: and that is ensuring that the voices of stakeholders are heard. Last year a few members asked us why NGA had not done more on green issues as they had been lobbied by their pupils – the fate of the planet we know is deeply important to very many young people.  We took heed of your requests. Our Governing Matters magazine lost its wrapping and this week we published guidance on sustainability.  We intend to do more in 2021 to encourage and support more governing boards to listen to their pupils – and any of you who have been successful with this already, please do share your experiences today in the chat or at any point in the future. At NGA we love to hear from our principal stakeholders: our members and our Learning Link subscribers.  You told us in the Annual Governance Survey last term that the two issues of most concern to you were staff welfare along with workload, and funding. I am conscious that I have barely mentioned money so far today but we will return to that in our next session with my leadership team.

Before I finish I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all those volunteers who are motivated to put something back into their communities and make a difference to the lives of children and young people. Thank you for your care, your commitment,  your expertise and your time. NGA is here to support you in this vital work and represent your views to others in the education sector and the powers that be.

COVID-19 required us to suspend our Visible Governance campaign to raise the profile of school and trust governance which had got off to such a great start in late February last year; but it will be back with lots of energy in 2021. Each month will have a theme, resources and a call to join in: January is the month of celebrating governance when we will open applications for the Outstanding Governance Awards 2021: please consider nominating your board, your clerk or governance professional, or another.  Let’s share the successes. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.

In my last minute I will venture into the territory which strictly is that of our AGM, just in case any of you are thinking of leaving us before 3.30, although I very much hope not.  We have some news to impart during the AGM, good news which has become possible because of our growing membership and Learning Link users.

At NGA we try to practice what we preach, and so our articles of association have defined terms of office, no more than nine consecutive years as a trustee and no more than three years as chair of trustees.  Elected trustees, the majority of NGA’s board, also have to put themselves up for election every three years. This creates change. I would therefore like to thank everyone who has served on our board of trustees over the past year: as a chief executive I can hand on heart confirm that the role they play in ensuring NGA is an organisation which delivers effectively for our members and our Learning Link subscribers is crucial. Although it has been odd this year not having you visit us in the Birmingham office since our strategy discussions in February, but I would like to thank you all for your contributions to NGA and for your support for me, the leadership team and all the staff.  Thank you particularly to the chair of our board for the last three years, Maggi Bull, who gives the time to listen and reflect, and challenges me in the best possible way, knowledgeably, authoritatively, kindly and ethically, absolutely always keeping the needs of our members at the centre of what NGA does. Maggi leaves the board at the end of today’s AGM: she is someone I have proud to have reported to. Maggi has always chosen schools to govern in which need her skills, knowledge and time the most – and I have never known her stray from what is right and best for children and young people. She has been exactly the sort of person an organisation like NGA needs to lead it. It is a privilege to serve you all.

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