At the National Governance Association's annual conference on 12 November 2022, 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:
Thank you for joining us today in Birmingham: it is truly wonderful to see you in front of me and to have heard the buzz at registration. Our annual conference always seems like a celebration of the governance community: perhaps with a bit of imagination, every single one of you is in effect representing another 1000 others! It is an amazing band across the county. Some of you will be meeting old friends and others will be here for the first time. If you didn’t know anyone when you arrived, I very much hope you do already and more by the time you leave. Please do introduce yourself to my team. The opportunity to talk to you - to listen- is invaluable. At NGA, we never forget you are the reason why we exist; it is a privilege to serve you as you in turn selflessly serve your communities and their young people.
What a time to be meeting – I think I am right in saying it is unprecedented to have had five Secretaries of State for Education in four months and here we are waiting for another Government fiscal statement next week. But before I move on to the concerns about money: let’s start with this week and the planet.
We meet again for our Annual Conference as world leaders are meeting at COP and there is no better reason for the minister not being able to be with us in person. A year ago, I asked you to engage with Greener Governance, our project on environmental sustainability – and I have been so heartened by the response.
41% of the over 4,000 respondents to NGA’s annual governance survey told us six months later that their school or trust had acted on environmental sustainability. It’s a good start but clearly much more needs to be done and as we hear from climate scientists there really isn’t time for further dither and delay. The resources we developed and improved over the past year should give boards the place to start. If you want a bit more support with starting off, we also now have a workshop on the governing board’s role in developing environmentally sustainable schools.
The National Association of Environmental Education’s 4 C’s of climate action in schools and trusts have been received very well. And I commend them to you: culture; campus; curriculum and community. Given other priorities, you may well not be able to focus on all four aspects immediately, but this gives you a way to begin to make a difference as many of those with now established strategies began.
We have learnt from the schools and trusts who embarked on this work, often some years ago, led by someone both aware of the evidence and passionate about the need to make change, who often started small, but doesn’t a whole school or trust approach. Pupil voices have been part of their stories too – and we will hear directly from them in their own words today after lunch.
We have also been supported by so many experts in this work – as always in our project work, NGA brings the governance expertise, but we seek help from subject experts and there are so many green organisations and climate scientists offering their knowledge to us and to schools. Please make use of the networks: our Greener Governance campaign page includes links to many. SchooliP has created free of charge a digital template for creating climate action plans: it is definitely worth a look if you are starting from scratch.
I am pleased to announce today the next stage of Greener Governance: In 2023, NGA will be supporting partners, in particular Students Organising for Sustainability UK and Climate in the Classroom, powered by the University of Reading, with a pilot project to assist schools and trusts to develop meaningful climate action plans. This new project aims to include those with well embedded activities from which others will learn but even more importantly schools and trusts who have not yet begun. If you wish to get involved and benefit from this support, please contact Megan.Tate@nga.org.uk for more information.
We need to mainstream environmental sustainable schools: it cannot remain the province of enthusiastic individuals who have been ahead of the curve. It is too important for that, and we are all now behind the curve when it comes to global warming and biodiversity. The issue is in danger of being pushed to the periphery by the short-term urgencies.
The Chartered Governance Institute published an interesting report called Mindful Exclusion: Further insights on effective governance in uncertain times. Part one considers what important issues are not making it onto your boardroom agenda, simply because they are less familiar? It lays out the benefits of horizon scanning, concluding that those who take the time to look forward perceive a level of ‘long-term urgency’ that others have yet to grasp. Despite some positive steps to-date, they suggest that climate change warrants greater prioritisation and commitment by boards in the coming year. So we are not alone in the schools sector.
Instead, we need to work with school and trust leaders, who are understandably having to deal with the here and now, to lift our heads from the immediate concerns and make the time to horizon scan when setting the strategy for the coming year. That is what board leadership is all about. Indeed, this is at the heart of what boards are there to do: you may have heard me talk about the three modes of governance before: the fiduciary; the strategic and the generative. Schools and trusts are so much better now at being strategic than when in 2015 we published the guidance of that very name. But time at board meetings is often pressed and therefore the generative and horizon scanning discussions need to take place during time set aside specifically for that purpose.
The second part of the CGI mindful exclusions report I mentioned is about board dynamics – an issue which has rightly climbed the topics most discussed in the world of governance geekery in the last five years. I have given it much more thought and space in the last two editions of the Chair’s Handbook. Building trusting relationships is one of our eight elements of effective governance – as is courageous conversations in the interests of pupils.
However, the CGI report records that in 2019 qualitative interviews, company secretaries reported that boardroom dynamics were often distorted by the inclination to avoid certain uncomfortable conversations, and further work last year revealed the extent of this issue. Admitting to mistakes was not a normal behaviour in the majority of boardrooms prior to COVID-19. Nor was asking for help, giving and receiving feedback, seeking out different points of view or challenging core assumptions. Maggie Farrar this afternoon will no doubt come back to this: ways in which board members’ behaviour can contribute to board leadership.
This is the right time to mention that for those of you who are able to stay onto the AGM this afternoon will receive a copy of either Maggie’s book: Leading with Presence or Andy Buck’s book: the BASIC coaching method. In this term’s new edition of the Chair’s Handbook I have made reference to BASIC coaching: “A one-to-one conversation that focuses on the enhancement of learning through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the other person, through questioning, active listening, appropriate challenge, and when needed, practical guidance in a supportive and encouraging environment that leaves the coachee feeling clearer and more optimistic about the future”. This would not replace the need for other support for school leadership, but if those conversations you have with school leaders can add even more to clarity and optimism, that would be a very important contribution. I know many of you are concerned about the well-being of leaders and want to ensure your practice helps to shore that up while not forgetting your wider responsibilities to the organisation. Andy is going to join me in December’s Governing Chatters podcast to explore how the coaching approach to questioning by governors and trustees can improve support and challenge of school leaders.
There is also still the question of the commitment and knowledge of trust and school leaders to governance, which I have raised before in my annual address, as without this understanding by the executive, it makes the board’s job of governing so much more difficult. There is no easy way for a new head or business leader – or indeed an experienced one – to obtain the grounding they need to participate in governance, certainly not from governance experts. So, NGA has stepped into that gap and has opened bookings for our 2023 sessions, which will be bespoke to the type of institution being led. Please do encourage any new leadership appointments or any prospective future leaders to engage with this offer tailored to them.
What’s distinguished this year from 2021 has been the publication of a Schools White Paper and the long-awaited SEND Green paper. And here we are seven months later, no clearer on the next steps for SEND. Apparently, the new Secretary of State is committed to following up the Green Paper so let’s hope that happens with the sense of urgency that it needs.
We have spent much time since March talking to the DfE about the plans for the future school system, and of course before: we are extremely pleased to have influenced the definition of strategic governance, one of the DfE’s five characteristics of a strong trust, by which they mean as MAT.
The White Paper says strategic governance is defined as – “operating an effective and robust governance structure that involves schools and exemplifies ethical standards. Utilising the expertise and skills on its boards to oversee the strategic direction and hold leaders to account. Having a strong local identity, engaging effectively with parents and the wider community”
So, community and local governance has been weaved into it: this is worth reflecting on. The evidence tells us local governance at academy level in a MAT is here to stay. The annual governance survey 2022 confirms almost all MATs include a local tier in their governance structure and are committed to it. This is an important finding, as some have downplayed importance of the local tier over the years, leading some to the unfounded conclusion that it was a disposable part of the MAT system. Our findings show this couldn’t be further from the truth and the Department for Education has listened to us, to you.
But what is the point of it? We are often asked this. Local governance is the big difference compared with governing a single academy trust (SAT) and the challenge is to make it meaningful. NGA has charted the progress with trusts up and down the country, discussing it with our MAT network since it first began in 2016 and been writing about this topic for years now. After all we have an advantage no one else in the sector does: NGA as an organisation is completely and utterly focused on governance and the needs of governing boards. We have no competing interests. That is our role in the school system: we are the national experts on governance.
Local governance exercised well provides:
- Evidence-based governance: equipping trust boards with school level intelligence to strengthen decision making, reflecting the needs of multiple communities, enabling more strategic and robust governance. Knowing your schools is another of the eight elements of effective governance;
Local governance exercised well provides:
- Checks and balances, a valuable source of challenge to the trust board, essential to good governance, avoiding the group-think which can set in on small trust boards at a distance from schools;
Local governance exercised well provides:
- Visible governance: creating powerful advocates for the trust’s vision and values at the local level, and a point of contact for stakeholders, helping to retain active engagement with the school and the wider community, supporting the trust’s mission and work;
Local governance exercised well provides:
- Accountable governance, one of the three pillars of good governance, keeping the trust answerable to its stakeholders, providing a mechanism for the trust to listen to parents, staff, pupils and others in the community. This is absolutely essential. It is schools, not trusts, that parents choose and parents relate to; it is what happens in school and their community that pupils and parents are concerned with. Governance – both the structure and the people needs to respect that.
Local governance exercised well provides:
- Collaborative governance: a local focus on accountability helps keep the trust grounded in the importance of place and its civic duties, and provides a focus and a mechanism for working with others locally, yes with other schools, but more broadly too with the full range of local organisations and public services. This is shaping up to be the next big challenge for the sector and its future shape – how do we ensure there are the right structures and the right people from trusts and schools to engage at local level outside their own immediate community.
So that is the theory: but do we know how does that work in practice? Yes we do, while others have not had the time – and sometimes the inclination – to build up that same understanding of what good looks like. It is a little different from MAT to MAT as the trustees decide how much to delegate to academy level and how much the board of trustees must see and decide for themselves. But in practice the minimum role of the local tier tends to be the 3 S’s: standards, safeguarding and stakeholders. One member trust suggested this should be the 4S’s with SEND added and we are going to be testing that out with others as it makes good sense to us. Anything less than those 3S’s does becomes rather meaningless. As this slide shows, many trusts delegate additional functions, including 70% who have a financial monitoring role. As I have said local governance helps to ensure stakeholder voices are heard, but it is more than a stakeholder consultation forum.
But does local governance make a difference? That depends on how it is practiced. NGA summarised what good local governance looks like seven months ago when we set some expectations and provided the sector with updated questions for self review for local governance alongside those for trust boards. Those twelve expectations written about by Sam Henson, our Director of Policy and Communications have been tested with a wide range of people including trust executives and I commend them to you.
One last thing before I leave the topic of strong trust governance, I want to take the opportunity to draw your attention to the extension of our Leading Governance development programmes to include an offer for MAT trustees with eight sessions and a separate cohort for SAT trustees with seven. These begin in the New Year, so if you have had any new trustees on your board who may benefit, do consider it – we have made it as flexible as possible with a board able to spread the knowledge and send different trustees to different sessions. If you want to know more, Paul Aber, our Head of Training Development is here today.
Now about half of you in the room may be thinking: you are spending a long time on the particulars of trust governance, but that is where the change is, the debate is, and where NGA is central to shaping that future of governance as well as the present – contributing to that horizon I spoke of, trying to ensure the structure and practices of governance are fit to serve the pupils of the future. I know that is why you give the time to govern, whatever the structure you govern within.
At NGA we value the voices of all – something we take very seriously. And in all our discussions with the DfE on the White Paper and the Schools Bill - both of which we are still waiting to hear the future of – we made sure we were clearly articulating the range of opinions and also the views of both those already governing within a MAT and those who do not. We do not rush to judgement – we balance the quantitative data of our survey with qualitative exercises – whether they are focus groups or structured interviews. And all of that rests on top of a very secure knowledge base from our business as usual, conversations we have with those governing day in day out.
So, first of all, chairs of maintained schools and chairs of SATs, we did undertake a listening exercise in the Spring which examined in some detail the thinking boards undertook when coming to the decision about whether to join a MAT. The reasons you gave us for not joining a MAT can be summarised as:
1. A very significant attachment to place and the importance of local collaboration
2. A fear of being ‘taken over’ by a larger organisation that will not have the interests of ‘their’ school and the needs of ‘their’ community at the heart of their decision-making in the way the current board does
3. The need for more conclusive evidence on the benefits to their pupils and how these are only provided by a MAT structure rather than local partnerships
4. The loss of school autonomy and the inability to re-consider the decision to join a MAT or to change trusts should promises not be kept and outcomes for pupils not appear
5. The lack of control over school finance and the potential loss of reserves
6. Lastly, given all the other pressures faced by schools and their communities, leadership capacity is very stretched and structural change was not considered to be the best use of their time at present.
And only this week we published a report of the voices of MAT trustees: I will not attempt to summarise here as I want to move onto other topics, but suffice it is say there was a range of opinions and not all were cheerleaders for the White Paper’s approach, while others were behind the move to a fully trust system.
Ensuring local accountability in our schools system is something we are in agreement with the DfE on and I expect all of you in this hall and beyond will support it too. This does mean schools and trusts need to continue to concentrate on improving engagement with stakeholders, that crucial 4th core function of governance. I hope our guidance is of use here.
However, there are in fact very many things that all of you irrespective of your school structure are united on: as a reading of our third annual survey report on the issues and challenges you and your schools/trusts are facing makes clear.
This year we have published our fourth edition of what used to be called Forming or Joining a group of schools; shaping your own destiny guidance in partnership with ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders) and BrowneJacobson: and printed copies are available today from BrowneJacobson’s stand.
So, let’s move back to improving governance in the schools and trusts - after all that is central to NGA’s charitable mission. We were pleased – after input from hundreds of governors and trustees – this Spring to publish new editions of the 20 and 21 questions for boards to ask themselves when undertaking a review. These are so well established – part of the governance community’s furniture.
But what about those schools and trusts who most need the support to improve. If you weren’t aware that NGA runs the National Leaders of Governance programme for the DfE, you will be now after the minister’s kind words on the performance in its first full year. The independent audit is extremely gratifying – and a tribute to NGA’s small but perfectly formed NLG staff team under the leadership of Emma Balchin, our Director of Professional Development, but also of course to the NLGs themselves some of whom are with us today: thank you for being part of this reformed programme. We are all keen to be able to undertake more support where necessary and this option is increasingly possible. It is still early days for the NLG programme in terms of evaluating impact, which after all is the whole aim, but if you are so minded you can read the evaluation report published today.
So, what are the issues we are prioritising now and into 2023:
Volunteer recruitment; governance professionals; pupils with disadvantage, school funding and of course the people who keep our schools running.
First, volunteer recruitment
This has never been easy, but you tell us it is becoming harder for many boards, indeed most boards outside London. I hope you are aware of the two free governor recruitment services: Inspiring Governance and Governors for Schools. But much of the work of recruitment falls on the governing board, supported by its governance professional – thank you if you contributed to the discussions we have been having with members this term and last. These have informed our updated Right People Round the Table guidance – published yesterday which we hope has even more useful tips than before.
As part of the Visible Governance campaign, we are also encouraging employers to support their staff who govern. We have produced a short resource for employers which explains what governors and trustees do, why they should support their staff to govern, and how they can do so. If you’re employed, please do share the guide with your employer. We also want to celebrate those organisations that already support their employees to govern. This may be through paid time off for duties, having a governor/trustee network or providing resources. Please get in touch to share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you are not as fortunate, we would still like to hear from you as perhaps we can help your employer provide the support.
I wouldn’t want you to think that because I haven’t listed equality, diversity and inclusion as one of the current priorities, that we have moved on from EDI. Quite the opposite – we have mainstreamed it and are considering the topic in everything we do. I am really pleased with the range of resources we have produced over the past year, including a diversity audit tool. Moreover EDI of course isn’t just about board composition and practice, it is about ensuring there is a whole school or trust approach which nurtures and promotes EDI. There I am really pleased to remind you of the free series of modules which we have developed with ASCL to help boards begin to have those important conversation and which have been very well received.
Second, governance professionals
Last year I reported on our research on the governance profession and said that with the DfE also championing the role that together we could have a real impact. NGA was then part of a DfE working group considering the career pathways of governance professionals and we awaited a DfE publication on the topic in the New Year. However shortly afterwards the DfE paused the work.
We decided that this work needed to be done and we made a commitment to work with the profession to develop a career pathway for school and trust governance professionals. There are a number of governance professionals in the hall today, and many of you will have been involved in one of the many network meetings or focus groups this year under the leadership of Steve Edmonds, our Director of Advice and Guidance. I am not going to steel his thunder: the pathway is being published at our next Governance Professional Network on 6 December.
In the meantime I can point out Amy Wright’s article in this week’s Governing Matters on the improvement to our recruitment web page for governance professionals: it’s a free service. Please do make use of it.
Third, improving the education of disadvantaged pupils
This is a subject 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. This year Fiona Fearon, our Policy and Projects Manager, has been working with partners on a toolkit to support you in this work. If you want to know more please do join us at our next lunchtime webinar which will introduce the toolkit and consider the board’s role. We will be looking at disadvantage in its widest sense as this diagram represents – and considering how the responses need to match the needs of pupils. We want to make sure the tool-kit is practical, so we are adopting the process which worked this year for the Greener Governance guidance – using our Spring’s Governance Leadership forums to explore the topic with you, our members, before improving the tool-kit with a second edition.
And of course you want to do the best by all your children: I am so pleased to welcome Mark Russell, Chief Executive of the Children’s Society, who will be talking to us about their incredibly important Good Childhood Report.
Fourth, school funding
Since we carried out the annual governance survey in May and you told us balancing the budget was your biggest concern, the situation has worsened with the unfunded pay increases and rising costs. There is absolute agreement across the sector that this is unsustainable and if it is not causing severe harm now, it will in the future as reserves are depleted.
Talk of a looming crisis in school funding is nothing new. Nor are the challenges faced by governing boards trying to make their budgets balance and their schools and trusts financially sustainable in a difficult economic climate. It is a much-quoted fact that given the effect of inflation the level of funding schools receive per-pupil is less than it was in 2010.
Whilst many of the issues to do with school funding and its allocation are complicated, the reality is simpler – the overall level of investment in schools is now insufficient to meet the cost of maintaining provision, the staff schools need to employ and the infrastructure and estate they maintain. There are added complications: making staff and leader pay competitive to support recruitment and retention, and challenges presented by falling roll.
One letter I wrote in July after the announcement on pay to Will Quince MP then the minister for school standards was answered by another school minister Jonathan Gullis MP in October and the follow-up meeting is to be with a different minister again. Along with 11 organisations representing school leaders, teachers, support staff and parents, in an open letter to the last prime minister Liz Truss and then education secretary Kit Malthouse, we made it clear that the amount of money allocated to education is not enough to cover rising costs and to maintain the education our children and young people deserve.
We know that this is the experience of so many of you governing schools and trusts. We will of course continue our lobbying efforts to secure the funding our schools need. You can play your part by continuing to email us at email@example.com and sharing the challenges you are currently facing in managing cost pressures and steering your schools and trusts clear of long-term deficits. We use this evidence and your stories to make our case and ensure your voices are heard. Also do speak to your MPs and make sure they understand the situation the school is facing. This is an extremely important part of our democratic process.
A few weeks ago, along with 12 other sector organisations, we raised these issues with the Conservative MPs who were choosing the new Prime Minister. The government need to act now to tackle this bleak situation. We will hear only next week if the newest Secretary of State Gillian Keegan MP has been able to persuade our Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to invest further in education. As he entered Downing Street Rishi Sunak has said he will deliver on the promise of the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto for “better schools”.
However, he warned of “difficult decisions to come” and I am concerned that when it comes to schools and trusts, it is governing boards who will be making more and more of those difficult decisions. These will require the very best of judgement with limited options. And you will know and then see the consequences of the decisions you have had to make to balance the budget playing out: the impact of larger class sizes, cuts to the curriculum offer and extra-curricular activities, and potentially reduced support for our most vulnerable pupils in a system that has been stripped of adequate outside specialist support. These effects need to be mitigated as much as possible. NGA is here to support you in these difficult of circumstances. Our December webinar is on the very topic of financial oversight in challenging times, but you do not need to wait until then to get in touch.
Lastly, our people in schools, not only the biggest resource in schools, but so very obviously the most important to providing children with the education they need and deserve. A year ago, Mandy Coalter, author of Talent Architects pointed out how few schools and trusts have a People Strategy and challenged us all to ensure ours do. This is still clearly crucial, but we also have some very imminent and particular issues with the workforce.
The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) has just sent ballot papers to its members: they invite NAHT members to vote for industrial action short of strike, and also strike action in support of their ongoing pay campaign. We spoke this week to the Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of NAHT about what that action could look like. During our conversation, Paul provided me with the reassurance that if they move to industrial action, the aim would be to minimise the impact on pupils’ education. He emphasised that NAHT and their members very much share our concerns about the impact of any further disruption after the pandemic to pupils’ education, and their actions will be designed with this in mind.
We will of course keep you updated about these and any other developments relevant to the work you do week in week out for the benefits of the children in your communities.
On behalf of the pupils in your schools, NGA says thank you. Where would schools be without your dedication, perseverance and thoughtfulness? I do not say that lightly. It is a very very good and important thing that you are engaged with. Thank you.