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Governing virtually: three boards share their experience


Representatives of three governing boards share their experiences and tips having moved quickly to holding a virtual board meeting due to the impact of COVID-19. Stella Fowler is Chair of Governors at Fynamore Primary School in Wiltshire; Claire Hawkes is Clerk to Governors at Alderbrook School, a secondary academy in Solihull; and Deryck Hall is Chair of Governors at Kitwell Primary School and Nursery Class in Birmingham.

Had your board used or considered virtual meetings previously?

Stella: We’ve been paperless for years, commonly conducting all pre and post meeting business on a private social network, which both the full governing board and committees can access anytime. We always use this and tablets or laptops in our meetings. Plus, we’ve had virtual attendance a few times in the past to make key decisions which require a quorate meeting at short notice (e.g. ratifying a headteacher recruitment panel decision). Working online for much of what we do as governors has really prepared us for this eventuality, it was a natural next step. Who knew trying to save paper and money would be so helpful in this crisis?

Claire: We discussed the possibility of holding virtual meetings in September and added it to the Terms of Reference this year. All normal meeting rules applied to a virtual meeting.

Deryck: No, we had not discussed them previously nor used them.

Given the pace of events, how did you get your meeting organised and working successfully?

Stella: I work remotely in my day job, so had easy access to video conferencing software, as well as experience using it. When it became clear that social distancing was the only way to keep things going, the headteacher and I agreed to move the full governing board meeting scheduled for 17 March online. We could have postponed the meeting but we agreed that it was important to have an online setup tested in case the situation got worse. We used Zoom. At least half of my governors were also familiar, so only a few of them needed the reassurance. I set up the meeting invitation and sent the link via our private social network, plus some instructions and was online ten minutes early in case of technical difficulties. Our meeting started on time, no-one struggled, and it was easy (except perhaps for finding a quiet space in a busy home for two hours!). I have also been having a weekly meeting with the headteacher by video conference, partly to stay sane and partly for support/company. Running the school in these difficult circumstances is delegated to the headteacher, but she still needs the support I offer as chair, especially at this time.

Claire: I registered with Zoom (a service new to us) as I wanted to show the papers on the screen. The Chair of Governors, chair of a committee and headteacher had a virtual meeting to test the IT to see if it could work. We then invited governors to a meeting to test their IT so the meeting could run smoothly. I Red-Amber-Green rated the agenda and the forward action plan so governors could easily see what was urgent and business critical and these were moved up the agenda. The forward action plan and headteacher’s report were posted on the virtual office platform we use and we invited questions in advance of the meeting so these would not have to be discussed in detail in the meeting. This helped with a smooth meeting, only covering questions submitted.

Deryck: Around 15 March it became likely that schools would close or limit pupil numbers, and that the governing board would not be allowed onsite. We had a meeting scheduled for 24 March at which a major decision needed to be approved in order to fit in with the local authority’s approval process timelines. I suggested holding the meeting by conference call with the headteacher and clerk. The clerk suggested a video conference via Microsoft Teams would be better. I emailed the board to advise of this (and the curtailed agenda) and the clerk emailed everyone with instructions on how to join the meeting. In advance of the meeting, governors were asked to approve a Virtual Governing Board Meeting policy.  The clerk had provided a couple of examples and I adapted one of these to suit our needs. Governors were asked to approve the policy by voting buttons and unanimous approval was received.

What advice do you have for others based on your experience?

Stella: Video conferencing can be scary if you’ve not done it before – my first experience of it was a job interview, when I was on holiday overseas, which was terrifying! What helped me was that someone else had set it up and I just had to click the link (or dial in). At first I felt silly, but it soon became the norm. I would recommend putting someone in charge of setting it up, so that all the majority must do is click a link and turn their computer audio on. Do find a quiet place, do mute when you’re not talking (kids and dogs can be quite a distraction – and remember governing board business is confidential), do listen carefully to others and come in at the right time. Your chair can help facilitate this, and if you’re brave enough to use the video function, members of the meeting can even raise their hand to speak. We’re a capable and confident governing board so this switch wasn’t a problem, but people should absolutely ask others if they need help or guidance.

Claire: Advise everyone to use headphones with a microphone if possible and have a session to test the IT. Post as much as you can online in advance and invite questions by a deadline, therefore you will not have to review them in the meeting. For decisions that were required, I noted this in the agenda ahead of the meeting and shared them with the chair, so that we were clear what needed quorate decisions. It’s a good idea to download the papers on the screen (in tabs), so you don’t have to rely on an internet connection and have any buffering issues when loading documents.

Deryck: Ensure that you are clear about the timing of the meeting and that everyone is expected to join the meeting five minutes beforehand to enable it to start on time. Also try and shorten the length of the meeting as limitations of online services may mean that the connection cannot be guaranteed to work for an unlimited time. That was fine by me as my experience of conference calls is that minds begin to wander after an hour and therefore become less productive and efficient. At the beginning of the year we set out the topics to be discussed at each meeting, so it was important to be clear about what is on the agenda and what has been removed or deferred as some governors might have expected these to be on the virtual meeting agenda.

What have you learned that you will take in to account at your next virtual meeting?

Stella: I think it’s harder to minute when you’re not able to see everyone and who is speaking, so I would encourage everyone to be brave enough to turn their video on – think of the clerk!

Claire: Overall, I was pleased with the outcome of the meeting, it was concise and efficient. Governors all commented how well it worked.

Deryck: Make clear how you join the meeting as two governors were using tablets or mobiles and hadn’t downloaded the app. Also make clear that they need to be in a private place for the call.

How did your agenda change in response to the situation?

Stella: Our meeting was held before the current measures and school closures came in to place so for us it was business as usual. COVID-19 was a (substantial) ‘any other business’ item in terms of planning and future proofing the work of governors so we could continue if there was a lockdown.

Claire: The agenda was amended to demonstrate the actions that the headteacher had to take regarding the pandemic, it demonstrated how the school was caring for the vulnerable children and children of key workers and how the skeleton staff was operating in school. We also covered wellbeing of staff in school, social distancing measures in place in school, and students access to learning and how this is monitored.

Deryck: Our face-to-face meetings usually last for two and a half hours with a 10-minute comfort break. The virtual meeting lasted for 60 minutes. To ensure that the main item was discussed in full, we had to defer several items such as our post-Ofsted action plan and associated updates from curriculum leads. We also asked the headteacher to update us on how the pandemic was affecting the school and added an item to agree to hold the remaining meetings this year online.

Have you considered what governance will look like over the coming term?

Stella: We have upcoming committees and our next agenda for Monitoring and Evaluation will cover key COVID-19 issues including the health and wellbeing of staff; how we are supporting disadvantaged children and whether they have accessed their free school meals; and how we are accommodating the needs of the children of key workers. For Leadership and Management, we will focus on urgent matters like recruitment, budget and health and safety. Otherwise, we’re keeping it flexible and keeping a watching brief on the advice coming out. I have excellent networks and follow some truly inspirational people on Twitter, as well of course as NGA. We will definitely work with best practice – no need to reinvent the wheel.

Claire: I am in the process of compiling the agendas for next term. I have contacted the main decision makers such as staff in finance and site management, the headteacher and the chair to see what urgent decisions need to be passed.

Deryck: We have agreed to hold monthly virtual 60-minute meetings for the remainder of the academic year. The decision is as much about staying in touch with one another as progressing the agendas. That is so important during this difficult time. I also propose to email the board with salient news and information as it occurs. We hope that we’ll be able to catch up on some deferred items though acknowledge that presentations may be difficult to accommodate. We’re also creating an Emergency Committee comprising about 50% of the board to handle matters arising out of COVID-19 and mundane matters which we’ll report back to the full board. Hopefully it won’t be needed, but we’re creating a succession plan so that if the chair or vice chair are incapacitated then there is someone to step up.

It’s early days, but do you have a sense of what the longer-term effect of virtual governance on your practice could be?

Stella: We often have a tricky balance between supporting our staff’s work-life balance while catering for governors with full time jobs and commutes to factor in. I think long term we’ll be more flexible with our meeting time-setting, and I think people would like to retain the dial in option.

Claire: I think our school, with guidance, will work very well with virtual governance. This does take some extra planning and preparation by the clerk, and the extra time taken should be balanced with less time taken reporting on the meeting. Our chair and I think we will adopt some the practices used for a virtual meeting for our standard face to face meeting. It facilitates the smooth running of meetings.

Deryck: It is too early to tell but one positive is in the creation of the Virtual Governing Board Attendance policy which will allow a governor to join the meeting remotely if, for instance, they are on a business trip.