How do you know whether your board is working well? Having an external review of governance is the gold standard. The Department for Education (DfE) also recommends an external review and we have certainly noticed an increasing interest in commissioning one since the ESFA’s Academy Trust Handbook included that the department’s “strong preference is that external reviews of governance are also conducted routinely as part of a wider programme of self-assessment and improvement”.
An external review every three years is good practice; NGA’s own board of trustees has just has its own three-year review. Although we like to think we know what we are doing at GovernanceHQ, there are still things our board is fine-tuning and introducing because of the input of an industry expert. But there’s a long time in between a three-year review for things to go pear shaped – a change-over of people can change practice, but at the other end of the spectrum, a lack of managed turnover can leave a board complacent.
An annual self-review between times should be part of the board’s workplan. But this needs to be proportionate and impactful: a board that spends half of its time looking at itself is unlikely to have time to do its job well of ensuring the organisation is sustainable and achieving its mission.
Board reviews are not a newfangled idea or an extra request. These are part and parcel of good governance. What’s more: in the school sector we have had an easy to use resource for almost a decade.
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 alongside the Key. Before former MP Neil Carmichael chaired the House of Commons Education Select Committee, he set up this APPG for which NGA acted as secretariat – and its most substantial and long-lasting contribution was to come up with 20 questions for self-review. Discussions being held in the Palace of Westminster committee rooms certainly were an added attraction and we were delighted to have substantive contribution from packed rooms. The final 20 questions were very well received.
Three years later it was clear that a slightly amended version was needed for boards overseeing a number of academies and the 21 questions for MAT boards were delivered in a similar fashion. Trusts have an added incentive to review their practice (although one shouldn’t need another really!) in that they need to report to their members on their governance effectiveness; there is no better way to do this than present the members at the AGM with the outcomes of a governance review.
It is not just their longevity that pleases me: it is the fact that they have become part of the governance establishment. They have been widely used over this period, always in our top 10 downloads, disseminated by many other organisations and referenced in the DfE’s Governance Handbook.
Since summer two years ago, the questions have been downloaded from our site alone over 11,000 times. That is quite phenomenal given there are 22,000 state schools and over 2,500 academy trusts in England, although I appreciate the downloads will not all be different schools and trusts.
NGA also has an online version of the questions to make the self-evaluation process even easier, alongside a debrief with one of NGA’s consultants to provide an external expert eye and some friendly comment. This is also an efficient and effective way of carrying out the review as everyone makes individual contributions in advance at a time of their choosing, and then the aggregated results are available for the discussion when everyone is in the room together, rather than starting with a blank piece of paper.
The process is not the be-all and end-all, the spirit in which the self-review is conducted makes all the difference. Does everyone participate? Is there honest reflection? Do all parties value the discussion: the chair; the governance professional and the headteacher or chief executive? This must not be just going through the motions. If there are no actions for improvement at the end, that suggests it has been superficial.
At our annual conference I announced a review of those longstanding and much used tools. And we have several ways you can contribute.
Please do get in touch!
As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.