Release date: 27/11/2021

At the National Governance Association's annual conference on 27 November 2021, Emma Knights, chief executive of NGA gave the annual address on school and trust governance to members. Here is a written copy of the speech which may have been delivered slightly differently:

It is truly wonderful to join [NGA chair of trustees Lynn Howard] in welcoming you back to Birmingham for an in-person conference after last year’s virtual one.

The keeping of promises is something we take seriously at NGA, so I want to begin by looking at those topics highlighted in my address last year – and indeed back to 2019 given the hiatus caused by the pandemic.

Several years ago, we integrated ethical leadership into our definition of good governance. This January we published the final report of the school and trust pathfinders project Paving the way for Ethical Leadership in Education. I commend that to you: it is such a good news story. Over 300 schools and trusts from across the country in all phases and types of schools were able to use the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education in setting the culture and in decision-making without adding to their workload. Kindness, courage and optimism were three of the virtues most frequently mentioned; and as a leader over the past year, I have certainly had to draw on those virtues. Since publication, the only virtue I have heard challenged – and just the once – has been optimism, but that has been hugely necessary while leading over the past 21 months. Kindness stood out for many pathfinders, giving them permission to base leadership on compassion in contrast to the outdated machismo model. There are a number of stories in our report of how the framework was used. Perhaps the least expected one was just how helpful the framework was in human resources work, including in recruitment, a topic I will return to. We developed a bitesize Learning Link module on Ethical Leadership; by having ethical consideration intrinsic to good governance, it will not be overlooked in all NGA produces.

Similarly accountable governance: engaging with stakeholders is the fourth core function of a governing board. I am pleased to say that our joint guidance with Parentkind on parental engagement has had a substantial makeover. Most schools have grown their credibility with parents during COVID, and although we mustn’t ignore those unhappy or even angry parents, there is much positive in terms of a partnership with parents to build on coming out of the pandemic.

Although there will be more to come from NGA on engaging with pupils in 2022, we already know that pupils have been talking to governors particularly about the environment and wellbeing, both issues which are taking priority at NGA as they need to be at school and trust level. I say governors as it is much easier to engage directly in conversation with pupils when you govern a single school that when you are a trustee overseeing a number of schools: how stakeholder voice is relayed to trustees of MATs continues to need care and attention so that is does not fall through the cracks.

In June we published our state of the nation report on Increasing Participation in School and Trust Governance in terms of equalities, diversity and inclusion. Strangely enough given all the conversations for the best part of a decade, and the Everyone on Board recruitment campaign since 2018, there had not been a report which set out the facts for the schools sector, making the case in writing for why diversity leads to better decision-making on boards and giving voice to some volunteers from under-represented groups. I am not able to rehearse all the findings here in the time I have today, but I encourage you to watch the recording of the launch event available from the website and to look at our amended guidance.

And I was proud that NGA worked with Institute of School Business Leaders to coordinate a statement of intent, by which national representative organisations will continue to hold each other to account. Working together, there is much more to do including ensuring equalities, diversity and inclusion among our professional leaders too, and there will be more to come on that topic in the coming year.

I have updated NGA’s commitments on race equality from seven to six, and I can confirm that NGA is in the long-term business of building a culture where everyone is welcomed into governance and our boards reflect our communities. We have only just begun, and I acknowledge there are some protected characteristics which we have not yet been able to focus on: I am particularly conscious of that being the case with disability.

It is of little point making an effort to recruit someone from an under-represented group if their voice isn’t heard once they are round the table. There is some good news on that front: you may have seen in the final of our three annual governance survey reports that 95% of respondents felt their voice was valued. Thank you for creating that welcoming and listening culture, especially those of you who are chairs.

You are the employers, or for those of you in many maintained schools, you stand in the place of the legal employers. I hope you have noticed that for a number of years NGA has been working to support you in being a good employer. But more importantly that have you improved over the last few years the ways in which you have discharge the responsibilities of an employer – whether through staff recruitment, staff appraisal as a force for good, staff development.

Our emphasis on improving the education and experiences of pupils through good quality staff CPD remains crucial; as a governance community I don’t want us to lose sight of the centrality of resourcing CPD, high-quality CPD, and developing staff in a way that has an impact. My message from last year that this should be at the centre of school improvement bears repeating. Education is a people business and outcomes for pupils rely heavily on the knowledge, skills and relationships with the adults in their lives.

Engaging with staff is incredibly important for so many reasons and I hope found the resources we produced to support your work on staff wellbeing useful. Just this month NGA became a signatory to the Department for Education’s Education staff wellbeing charter which is well worth a look. Governing boards need to be aware of the impact your decisions have on staff workload and staff retention, not forgetting your role in terms of pay and conditions.

I am pleased that Mandy Coulter of Talent Architects is joining us today to speak on this very topic of ‘how to ensure your school is a great place to work’. We are very much at one with Mandy in her mission to bring talent management and good human resources practice to all schools and trusts.

I hope you can see here a method here with the topics we prioritise in any given year: we begin with a real concentration on improving our resources and establishing solid guidance, and in the following years we embed them into our business as usual in way which we hope allows you to do the same.

We never forget that our charitable aim is to improve the governance in state schools and academy trusts in order to benefit the education and welfare of pupils. That is our focus and, I am pleased to say, our entire focus.

We have also published two reports on the governance of MATs this year - in March MATs moving forward; the power of governance and in September the first of the three survey reports – alongside a new edition of Welcome to a Multi Academy Trust, our induction guide for MAT trustees. It surprises me that a very few trust leaders still say they can’t find bespoke guidance on trust governance: what else might they be missing if they haven’t come across NGA’s stable of guidance, built on experience and knowledge from a track record of working with MATs since they first came into being.

NGA has always championed collaboration, both in the form of partnerships but also in formal groups of schools governed by one board – when other organisations followed ministers’ leads and promoted school autonomy, often misunderstanding the difference between partnership and a group of schools, NGA was already encouraging community MATs and maintained federations. Indeed, we were considered by the DfE a thorn in their side when we suggested small schools would be better joining a group of school than converting alone. Our first edition of Forming or Joining a group of schools; shaping your own destiny guidance was published in 2015 in partnership with ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders) and BrowneJacobson, both here today, and we are planning a fourth edition in 2022.

Although we feel as though we repeat the basics of MAT governance over and over again, we actually need to do even more of that as some volunteers are new to the academy sector, new to volunteering as a trustee altogether; but also there are new heads, new trust executives and new trust governance professionals. Some of the better practice has not filtered to all: for example, one of the important ways to improve communication between the trust board and the academy governors is to hold regular meetings between the chair and vice chair of trustees with the chair and vice chairs of those academy committees (local governing bodies). This should now be standard practice, but some trusts still appear not to have come across this or believe it to be novel. If you govern within or advise a MAT, please do take this away with you. Let’s establish this as a minimum standard.

We also learn a huge amount from the consultancy work for clients – and recently Clare Collins, our Head of Consultancy, gave us an updated, but barely changing, list of the main flaws our team finds with MAT governance. They are not rocket science. I can’t help thinking we are a sector should have moved past this, but we haven’t yet, so repetition is the order of the day. In no particular order, the deficits are:

  1. The lack of appropriate investment in a governance professional: this is one of the eight elements of effective governance and I will return to that shortly.
  2. Lack of training and development: another deeply obvious need, and one provided by many in a busy market, including of course NGA;
  3. Over complicated structures, such as too many committees: we developed model schemes of delegation (SoD) years ago after seeing many examples which were contributing to confusion, not clarity: please seek our advice. SoDs have not gone out of fashion; they remain the spine of this work;
  4. Long standing incumbents on governing boards: this will, I’m sure, be the most contentious of these conclusions, although it shouldn’t be. It was one of Ofsted’s conclusions after a piece of work on what contributed to decline in schools. It is also an area where the school and trust sector is out of kilter with others, including charities which are in theory academy’s trusts’ nearest and dearest. NGA has for a long time championed limiting service to eight years on any one board, moving to another school or trust after that. There is finally beginning to a be a bit of movement on that as our 2021 survey showed: more long service but on a different board. We can’t celebrate complete cultural change yet, but we will continue to point out that over time power and influence can concentrate in a very small group, and relationships can become cosy or complacent, leading to the downfall of governance.
  5. Not being strategic: that old chestnut. Contrary to some people’s stereotypes, straying into the operational is not limited to maintained schools; indeed it is found in a range of sectors. I cover the topic in some detail in the Chair’s Handbook, and we attempt to distinguish the executive and non-executive roles clearly in the well-loved What we expect, but it is time we returned to highlighting the line and how to navigate it.
  6. Lastly, the lack of effective self-board evaluation.

So we will continue to bang the drum for the basics, and I hope those of you who are extremely experienced will understand why. We will also re-double our efforts to de-mystify the issue for trust executives who can compound the situation without enough knowledge and experience of MAT governance themselves.

These issues are pretty much replicated in the reviews we conduct for maintained schools and single academy trusts (SATs), although of course with rather less complicated structures. 2022 will mark ten years since the 20 questions for a governing board to ask itself were published under the auspices of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Education Governance and Leadership, followed in 2015 by 21 questions for MAT boards to use in self-review. They have been widely used over this period, always in our top 10 downloads, disseminated by many and referenced in the DfE’s Governance Handbook.

Since summer two years ago, the questions have been downloaded from our site over 11,000 times. That is quite phenomenal given there are 22,000 state schools and over 2,500 academy trusts in England; I appreciate there will not all be different schools and trusts, but the questions are available by other routes too.

So today I am announcing a review of those longstanding and much used tools. If you have any immediate comments to make, please contact for the 20 questions for the board of a single school: and for the 21 questions:

Our next MAT governance network – which has been in existence for a good five years and expanded further since going virtual – is taking place on 14 December, and one of the topics there will be a consultative session on the 21 questions. The 20 questions will also feature at our leadership forums for both SATs and maintained schools. We also hope to hold session for non-members with partners, those that were also there in the beginning!

Our governance leadership networks and our Welcome to Governance LIVE sessions are divided four-ways to cater specifically to the four different types of governing we have in the state school community – maintained schools; SATs; MAT trustees and academy governors within a MAT.

By contrast we haven’t yet taken that step with our network for Governance Professionals on 7 December for good reason. The report we published in June after a survey of governance professionals made it very clear that while there were a range of roles, especially within larger trusts, the people within the profession were one – moving from maintained sector to academies, and often serving both at the same time while working for an agency, a local authority or self-employed. NGA is part of the DfE’s working group considering the career pathways of governance professional and we await a DfE publication on the topic in the New Year, but do encourage your governance professionals to join us on the 7 December when development is the order of the day.

The majority of this audience are the contractors of governance professionals and I think the findings of the report deserve repeating:

The survey of over 1,200 governance professionals showed that they largely feel underrecognised, underpaid and underdeveloped in a system that lacks consistency and progression opportunities:

  • 39% of governance professionals do not receive an annual appraisal, and one in four had no induction to their role;
  • More than half of those clerking at school level (58%) are being paid below NGA’s recommended minimum of between £12.85 to £14.74 per hour depending on the level of experience involved;
  • Only a tiny minority (13%) saw scope for progression in their roles; and
  • Low pay and lack of understanding of the role are the main factors for those wanting to leave the profession

We called for governing boards to give governance professionals appropriate induction and CPD, an annual appraisal, an acceptable level of remuneration and time to complete their duties. We have with our Clerking Matters campaign been raising these issue for years – but with the DfE now also championing the role we aim that together with governance professional themselves we can have a real impact.

Before I move onto to our chosen priority themes for 2022, I wanted to talk about how we arrive at them. Our organisational values as agreed by our members some years ago are expertise, evidence, our independence and listening to the voices of all. They are not just words on our tin; they are written through all that we do.

We have a number of sources, both quantitative – as well as the annual school and trust governance survey, there is the membership survey 1,300 of you have just completed and we will reporting on this afternoon – and qualitative. We take note of what you say to us at events, on the GOLDline, in emails, and to our regional team which didn’t exist this time last year. We have also run focus groups (advertised in the weekly newsletter) on subjects we are exploring and guidance we want to improve – for example, thank you to those federation chairs who helped us update our federation guidance.

Exams and assessment are something NGA has always been rather on the periphery of, without the capacity to increase our in-house expertise, but a member wrote to Sam Henson, our Director of Policy and Information, to say that this was just not good enough – and so we took this on board. We have begun to have those discussions with the small number of people who came forward and expressed an interest in qualification reform. Yet in our recent survey report a substantial majority of respondents wanted change: so if you have views of what would be better for our young people and equipping them for the world, Sam would be pleased to hear from you:  

Of course not all the voices in the governance community say the same thing – that is the challenge of my role with the support of my excellent staff team – to use our judgement to work out what exactly to say, when and how best to intervene in any debate. We look at what’s going on in the policy world and in the sector more generally – the big issues of the day. But sometimes those big issues are deep in the realm of the classroom and pedagogy and sometimes they do not accord exactly with the ones you are dealing with at trust and school level.

Often we have to examine forensically where your influence lies and where NGA’s lies: what is it we can each do to effect the change we want to see. Time is at a premium for you all and we mustn’t ask you to do things which are outside your sphere of control: there is enough for you to do within in.

Let’s take as an example, a subject we know is close to many of your hearts: ensuring that those pupils who begin life with more disadvantages than others end up with the same opportunities as their peers. It is certainly close to mine too – the first half of my working life was spent in civil legal aid work and supporting local advice centres and citizens advice bureau serving disadvantaged clients; it also allowed me to undertake some social policy work and research in the field of child poverty, welfare benefits and child support. Some of you may remember in 2018 we published a research report entitled Spotlight on Disadvantage which considered pupil premium plans and the way governing boards were signing off its expenditure: how do you know that the spending has the best possible impact? Not an easy question to answer, but one you absolutely have to engage with not just on the pupil premium but now on COVID recovery funding too. Our recently updated guidance on pupil premium should help you have those discussions: and if you have other questions let us know.

This year Fiona Fearon, our Policy and Projects Manager, in our June webinar broadened this topic by looking at a wider definition of disadvantage than poverty: if you haven’t seen that I would commend it to you, and she will be building on that in the coming year looking at what the governing board’s role is in making a difference to different groups of children. If you have experiences to share, Fiona would be pleased to hear from you:  

If you follow the education press, it will not have escaped your notice that the return of Ofsted has been accompanied by even more stress and fear by leaders and teachers than pre-COVID. Just as COVID was hitting the county we published our report on the first term of the then new Ofsted framework A View from the board and we have continued to ask Ofsted to consider who it might improve the reports and the inspection of governance. However, we have not directly experienced the outpouring about Ofsted from our members this term. We will be updating the data used in the March 2020 report. If you have a recent experience of Ofsted to share, then Nina Sharma, our senior policy and information officer would be very pleased to hear from you:

However there is also a bigger role for governing boards: to help combat the pervasive fear of Ofsted. We have even heard rumours that some governing boards might be adding to that pressure: I very much hope those reports are incorrect. You are monitoring, supporting, challenging your schools term in, term out: you know their strengths and weaknesses; you agreed the strategic priorities. It is highly unlikely that in one or two days’ visit the inspectorate can learn things you and your school leaders don’t already know. You need to have confidence in those decisions you collectively made, and it is your job to convince leaders who are working hard to deliver this strategy and provide a good education that there is no need to fear the consequences of an inspection. For a long time, the culture which has developed around Ofsted has been unhealthy, but with leaders often worn out by the relentless pressure of the past five terms it appears to have become full-blown toxic in many places. As governance leaders: we cannot let this continue.

Let’s stand up and put the inspectorate firmly in its place: yes of course it is part of our school system in England, one that governors and trustees have long supported, but its role needs to be proportionate and truly cognisant of the situation schools have been facing, some with more challenges than others. Ofsted is looming far too large over the profession at a time when support is needed. Governance can provide that support as well as challenge, and the whole sector should unite instead behind governance as the first and foremost form of accountability for this crucial public service. We want expert views from outside – that is part of triangulation – but not as the primary form of accountability. You – governing boards – provide that. I am going to repeat that: governing boards provide the first and most important line of accountability for schools.

So to the first of our three priorities for 2022.

Greener Governance: I very much hope all of you have read the latest Governing Matters with the climate emergency as our cover story. The evidence is incontrovertible: the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it absolutely clear. The outcome from COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference earlier this month made some progress but not enough to keep the planet within 1.5 degrees of warming. There absolutely cannot be any more denial, dither or delay.

We have all heard the voices of our young people passionate about the need to tackle the climate crisis, but also many understandably very anxious about what the future holds for the planet and the next generation. We cannot expect them – the young people – to be the saviours of the universe; we cannot leave them to sink into a quagmire of despair while we shuffle off our mortal coils.

So to the good news: governing boards do have some control here. You can play your part as local leaders, well placed to help achieve the change young people are rightly calling for. Many governing boards have begun to consider whether their school or trust is making the best possible contribution to environmental sustainability, but by no means all. Schools and universities represent 39% of UK public sector emissions, so by governing boards pledging to reduce carbon, their school or trust can make a significant contribution to reaching Net Zero. Moreover education plays an even more fundamental role in tackling the environmental emergency by equipping children for the future. Our updated guidance with National Association for Environmental Education, experts in this area, adopts their 4 Cs: curriculum; culture; campus and community.  

We have therefore asked governing boards to take the Greener Governance pledge:

  1. to reduce carbon at your school or trust;
  2. put your school’s or trust's contribution to environmental sustainability on the agenda; and
  3. ensure a plan is developed to make this happen in 2022.

The NGA welcomes the Secretary of State's draft strategy on sustainability and climate change for education and children’s services published at COP: it is an important first step by the Department for Education in taking the environmental crisis seriously, and our chance to do something brilliant with young people to safeguard their future. We are in dialogue with the DfE’s sustainability and climate change unit and hope that they will take up our offer of providing a platform for consulting you – governors and trustees. This topic will feature heavily in our Spring round of the Governance Leadership Forums: please do sign up to be part of this important conversation, a conversation with a purpose, a conversation leading to action.

Our second big issue will be: pupil wellbeing. For the first time our annual governance survey had pupil wellbeing at the top of your list of concerns. This very much coming top of other people’s polls too. Just this week in their own annual survey of parents, ParentKind showed that parents are concerned about a range of children’s mental health and wellbeing-related issues. The top five concerns for parents are: exam stress (55%); anxiety (54%); homework-related stress (49%); bullying (49%) and the pressure to constantly engage with social media (48%). Over 30% of parents expressed more serious concerns about their children’s mental health linked to; self-harm, sexual harassment, substance abuse and eating disorders.

If you are concerned about pupils’ access to other services outside schools, you are unlikely to be able to directly influence the supply locally, but do please share your knowledge of local services with those who make the decisions locally. Adding the governance voice to those of others made a difference in 2019, and collaboration can make a difference again. Today’s politics once again underlines the importance of backbenchers; bringing the issues of how young people are being let down by the lack of services on offer to the attention of your MP is critically important. It is how our democracy is supposed to work: stories are powerful.

As well as attempting to effect change where the solution is beyond your control, there is also the important action of wellbeing which well and truly lies within the reach of governing boards themselves. Very much like Greener Governance, we are drawing on other organisations’ expertise on pupil mental health and there is much information on offer. Well Schools is bringing many of them together, sharing resources – and offering a whole organisation approach: well led, well prepared and well equipped. We won’t be neglecting staff wellbeing either, far from it, the structure provided by Well Schools will very much ensure that, and you will be hearing more about the governing boards’ role in setting the culture, agreeing a whole school or trust approach, down to what data a governing board could be looking to determine its actions and impacts. And we do not forget the wellbeing of those who govern too.

Our third big issue is leadership: you may be thinking surely that goes without saying; good relations with leaders is part of the bread and butter work of those of us who govern. True, but the reason that is had made it into our top three is that there are many signs that we may be entering an era when more leaders are departing, having seen their schools and trusts through the bruising time of the pandemic, and others, having witnessed just how tough leadership has been, may not as willing to step up.

Governing boards have a big role to play here, in helping to ensure these roles are possible, in setting from the top the culture which support work-life balance, in supporting always, but especially when times are hard and leadership is lonely. This will be essential if we are going to maintain and increase those coming forward across the system. And let’s think system wide – I recently heard an executive leader talking proudly about how when he joined a trust, his previous leadership team came after him. I wondered about the school they left behind: that didn’t seem like a strategy which benefits all pupils in all schools. We need to invest in developing as many leaders as possible and see it as a badge of success when they are promoted to other schools and trusts, knowing that another school or trust will have taken a similar approach which may help you in filling that vacancy. It is healthy to have some movement around the system bringing an injection of ideas to a new school or trust.

In particular, chairs have that key role with the senior leader. As a chief executive of fair longstanding – fifteen years over two roles – I have served under seven chairs; and I know from experience just how important that relationship with the board as a whole and the chair in particular is to ensuring the organisation is achieving its mission with a confident and purposeful leader. But not every day do we all feel confident and purposeful: we all have our moments and it is then that having a sounding board is most valuable; seeking wise counsel especially when issues can’t be discussed with staff; or simply letting off steam. But so often I see on Twitter reticence from headteachers to share with their chairs or boards for fear of being judged and found wanting. Do make sure the offer of a mentor or coach is writ large; worked into development discussion at appraisal.

Let’s get back to basics here: let’s return to those conversations with leaders about what we expect of each other. I hear so much support from governing boards for their heads and chief executives, but perhaps it is not always registering, not being perceived as such, or simply not just not universal. It is time to say it again. But I will also remind you here that only last year DfE funded research from the National Foundation for Educational Research reported than more 9 out of 10 heads and chief executives felt supported by their boards. This was measured just before COVID struck but by all accounts most relationships between boards and leaders have strengthened in the meanwhile with huge respect for the incredible jobs that have been done by school and trust leaders, day-in day-out balancing so many needs, making many tricky decisions.

It does not mean you forgo challenge: leaders should understand that both – support and challenge – are required. Getting the balance right, the tone right – that is at the heart of good governance, along with good judgement. However we are aware that that commitment to – and understanding of – governance is still not universal among school leaders.

Despite its positive positioning in the new versions of the DfE’s national professional qualifications for leadership, we do not yet know if the organisations contracted to deliver the NPQs will truly understand governance or care enough to give it its fair share in the programmes. Past performance suggests perhaps not; I had offered our expertise to the DfE in their auditing of this development, but that has not yet been taken up. We are equally worried that the organisational management domain may be similarly overlooked: financial management; risk; human resources; premises, systems and processes are not the sexiest of topics, but they are of enormous importance when managing an organisation well and sustainably. NPQs are not the only option for leadership development. Coaching has taken off in the last few years, and that is an option which should be discussed with leaders, no matter how experienced.

I have committed to working with ISBL, Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) to explore further how the three aspects of leadership: governance, educational leadership and business leadership can work best together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.  

School leadership is also changing and over the last year we have been extending our work on the executive teams of trusts with more added to our Knowledge Centre, and then today we are publishing alongside Forum Strategy a job description for a chief executive of a multi academy trust. This builds on Michael Pain’s 2019 book Being a CEO which I can recommend. Many of you in this room may have made the decision that as the trust was growing you need to move from having an executive head to a CEO; I hope this resource helps others who are in this process and is a useful review at the time of recruitment. Also the poor quality of some early CEO job descriptions might make it worth reviewing any existing job description.

So we have:

  • Greener Governance
  • Pupil wellbeing as part of a Well School
  • Leadership development

You may be thinking, she hasn’t mentioned money – has she forgotten the third core function of governing boards? what has happened to Funding the Future? NGA is not an organisation which shouts the odds – the need to build an evidence base means we do not shoot from the hip. In 2019 that careful building of a case had happened: our quantitative survey data was supplemented by members providing us with their stories of the difficulties balancing the books, most often by reducing staff posts and thus adding pressure on remaining staff. This allowed us to make to the case to Government for more school funding, alongside partners and ably supported by governing boards who lobbied their MPs.

The resulting improvement in the financial settlement is now feeding through to schools and trusts, and clearly making a difference, judging by both the quantitative and qualitative information we have. It is very much to governing board’s credit that the emphasis on financial efficiencies, using resources well have very much become the order of the day. Indeed just this week the National Audit Office is reporting increasing surpluses, especially in the trust sector and raising questions about the need to spend on today’s pupils. If you are one of the trusts growing surpluses, then consider whether you can afford to supporting your people with more time to plan, prepare and to develop.

There is one exception to the lack of noise on funding – and that concerns SEND as we discuss regularly with our expanding SEND network. If you have a story to share: please pass that onto; she and Adelaide are on GOLD stand today.

Later today we will be hearing from the Secretary of State for Education the Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP.

Preparing for that took me back to the NGA’s 2019 manifesto which we used in the last General Election – and despite COVID being a unique challenge, the 12 asks from two years ago still work well today. There is not a lot of progress to mark on most of those 12, many of which I have spoken about.

In 2019 NGA called on the government to introduce mandatory induction and invest further in the ongoing development and support for all governors and trustees. Since then sadly the DfE has this year removed all the development funding for governance volunteers and governance professionals: not a penny is being spent in 2021/22 and no decision yet in 2022/23. I do not think that is good enough. Certainly just 4% of respondents in the 2021 annual governance survey said they do not agree with mandatory high-quality induction. The DfE has had a better financial settlement recently than was expected, so we will continue to press for governance development to be taken seriously.  

The ministerial foreword to the DfE’s Governance Handbook begins: “Governance has never been more critical to the education of our nation’s young people…. The governance duty is, above all, to drive relentless ambition for the young people served by our schools system, whatever the circumstances.”

Secondly, an ask for additional support for recruitment of governors and trustees is missing from the 2019 manifesto. Since then, the difficulty of recruiting volunteers has continued to increase: this year 64% of respondents said their board found it difficult to recruit volunteers, up from 50% in 2015. Just one in ten volunteer recruits find out about the opportunity to govern through a route other than an existing connection to their school or trust. Since our Increasing Participation report, NGA has been calling for the DfE to fund a large-scale national volunteer recruitment campaign to boost awareness of the role in order to increase the number of people coming forward. NGA will play its part in the next phase of our Visible Governance campaign, but the system needs approximately 50,000 new volunteers a year: it is unreasonable to expect people to step up in those required numbers if they do not know this is even a possibility, an opportunity to both give back to their communities and develop their own skills and knowledge.

The people in this room make a huge contribution to school and trust governance, but I think we need to hear now what contribution the Government will be making to the recruitment and development of volunteers. It can never match what you all are giving, but some support, some acknowledgement would be the least the Government can do to say more than thank you.

NGA has always had collaboration and partnership at its heart – we believe we are more powerful together, sharing evidence, united in a common cause. In the 2019 manifesto we urged an increased emphasis on greater collaboration between trusts and schools, regardless of structure. There does seem to have been some progress on this front but driven not top down, but at local level, in part by necessity during the pandemic. All schools across a locality looking outwards, rather than upwards is a healthily way to be.

At national level we have produced joint guidance with a range of other organisations who bring complementary expertise to the table, a similar ethos and mutual respect for each other’s knowledge and track record. But this is getting close to the subject of our AGM. NGA is largely an organisation of the here and now; we concentrate on how to support boards and their professionals to govern well, but I will finish with a very quick look to the future.

There is currently much discussion and speculation about the forthcoming Government White Paper. Some of you – both maintained schools and SATs – have asked questions of the National Schools Commissioner last term and for the Secretary of State today about the detailed of the benefits and any incentives to join a MAT. Many SATs feel particularly aggrieved about the switch of Government policy away from school autonomy which their governing boards bought into when they converted and has suited their purposes since. It is NGA’s role to provide you with as much relevant information and evidence as we can about options, but the decision is yours. We are pleased that unless a school is struggling, this remains the case: it is the governing board that will be the decision maker. NGA continues to defend that principle absolutely: you know the context of your school; you set its values and ethos; you understand its needs. You are best placed to make that decision and there are no plans to change that.

One of the policy seminars we held last summer – in lieu of that conference – considered the possibility of a long-term vision for education in England, held with our partner FED (the foundation for education and development). I am continuing to be involved in those discussions, and you can still watch the recording of that event from the website if you want to know more and get involved.

You will not all have the same vision for the future; you may not agree on the purpose of education. But I think there is one thing that tends to unite those govern – and that is about the importance of place. You tell us in surveys that one of the reasons you volunteer is to put something back into your community. You know that place; and that improves your ability to make good decisions. You are the epitome of civic engagement.

Perhaps it is time we review NGA’s values agreed some years ago by our members – potentially adding that we value compassion, collaboration, and place. A debate for next AGM!

But for today, let me end by restating how much we value our independence: NGA is here to speak your truth to power. So please make the most of this and today speak to our staff; speak to our trustees; let us hear the voice of the governance community. Not only visible, but audible.

Thank you.

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