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Governance skills audits - it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it


I’ll start with a candid admission: I have never been convinced of the value of governor and trustees carrying out skills audits. Not an ideal starting point for someone involved in developing NGA’s version, which also happens to be one of the most popular and accessed resources on our Knowledge Centre. Please allow me to explain. 

I don’t have a problem with the expectation that boards carry out an evaluation as a starting point to acquire the skills and experience they need to be effective. It makes perfect sense. My problem as a participant in skills audits has always been with responding to questions that are not intuitive or helpful in making my assessment of what I know, can bring and what I should do next to support my ongoing development. From the perspective of someone who has been tasked with evaluating the results and making recommendations to individuals and the governing board, my experience has been just as frustrating – having to draw conclusions from a set of scores which tell you everything yet nothing about what development should be prioritised.    

I’ve seen a few different versions of skills audits in my time. It is fair to say that most are designed with the intention of supporting boards to implement the DfE competency framework for governance into their working practices. Again, this makes sense, although I’ll save my thoughts on the competency framework for another blog! The problem is that while the framework clearly states that boards need to consider which of its elements are most important for their context, the relentless nature of the document makes that challenging to do. I am sure this has contributed to the poor design of skills audits and why for many boards they have become little more than a token compliance activity: something boards do rather than do anything with.

Updating the NGA skills audit is a big responsibility – no one disputes that it is the most widely used version available. (I should say versions because we publish separate skills audits for those serving on trust boards and those in other governance roles.) We have continued to make refinements that make each version more specific to its audience and less onerous to complete. However, it is our mission to make skills audits more meaningful and useful, both to individuals and boards, that has driven the significant changes for the 2021/22 academic year.

I should at this point say a huge thank you to those governors, trustees and governance professionals who answered our call to be part of focus groups who identified with our mission.  They provided insight into the reality of carrying out this annual task and what happens (or doesn’t happen) with the results. While there was approval for the design and format of our skills audit, the focus groups challenged us in a positive way. They asked us to make it easier for individuals to use the audit as a tool to build their own development plans and for those evaluating the results to identify and make clear recommendations for whole board development priorities. These could relate to recruitment, whole board training or e-learning.

We responded by producing guidance notes for each of the skills statements to clarify understanding and promote accurate and consistent evaluation. This, alongside a subtle but significant change to the scoring scale (making it one to four instead of one to five) should lead to a more consistent approach. The guidance notes also signpost to NGA and other resources that impart the knowledge and understanding you can gain to boost your score. This, we hope, will move the skills audit away from being viewed mostly as a compliance activity and into a more empowering space.

For those evaluating the results we have replaced the previous skills matrix with a new skills dashboardThis allows the audit responses to be readily copied and pasted, makes it easier to identify (the main) the priorities for the whole board and signposts to the resources and support available to meet them. Again, it’s about making it easier, less confusing and reducing the likelihood of skills audit forms gathering (virtual) dust.

I’ve left the most important change until last. We have included a new section in the skills audit (I am pleased to say without adding to the number of questions) which provides those governing with an opportunity to evaluate their experience and understanding of the communities they serve and their capacity to promote an inclusive culture. You’ll know how much NGA emphasises the importance of boards being connected to the communities they serve and the influence they have on ensuring there is a culture in their school or trust which allows diversity and inclusion to thrive. By including this new section, we are encouraging individual and collective reflection leading to action, whether that is in the form of development or increasing participation at board level. You can find more on this in our recent increasing participation report.

Our development of the NGA skills audit won’t stop here – we are actively seeking your feedback on the changes (you may have noticed the survey on our website) and will use this to build further improvements next year. I hope that the changes made to the 2021/22 skills audit will lead to an improved process and serve as a reminder that it is not doing them but what you do with them that counts. Who knows, the changes may even win over a few sceptics like me.