A new survey by the National Governance Association (NGA) reveals the strategic priorities of governing boards in schools and trusts across England as well as a 2021 picture of board’s experiences of finance and staffing matters.
Pupil mental health and wellbeing was the biggest strategic and spending priority for boards. 45% of respondents said that it is one of the three areas their school wants to make the biggest difference in over the next year. Respondents in primary schools were slightly more likely to say it was a priority than those in secondary schools. This is also reflected in how boards plan to spend the ‘catch-up’ money they are receiving from government with 54% of governors and trustees saying it will go towards mental health and wellbeing provision.
Managing and improving school premises was the second most popular strategic priority with 40% of respondents choosing it. This is the first time that premises has been identified as a significant focus for boards and can be connected to the attention given to premises in response to COVID-19. Other topics prevalent in the education sector such as improving attainment (10%) and developing and retaining staff (8%) were selected by fewer respondents as their board’s main priorities.
The top strategic priorities are:
- Pupil mental health and wellbeing
- Managing and improving premises
- Attracting high quality leaders
- Ensuring best use of resources
- Behaviour and exclusions
- Support for pupils with special educational needs
Funding continues to present a challenge to all types of school – and it is positive that making best use of resources features in the top strategic priorities for boards. The survey shows that the short-term state of finances is more positive than the long-term outlook. Almost three-quarters of respondents (72%) said their school or trust can balance income and expenditure now, but over half (56%) think they are not sufficiently funded to deliver their long-term vision for pupils. The data also showed significant difference by school type. Those governing in academy trusts presented the most positive picture when it came to balancing the budget as well as optimism about future funding while respondents in local authority maintained schools reported the greatest challenge in both current and long-term funding.
Current financial situation was a clear precursor to respondents’ feelings about future financial health, analysis showed. While 73% of respondents currently balancing their budget while retaining a healthy surplus believe they are sufficiently funded to meet their long-term vision for pupils, just 8% of those currently unable to balance income and expenditure say the same.
The survey also found an upward trend in respondents saying that their board is systematically monitoring and addressing issues relating to the workload and wellbeing of staff. 77% of respondents said they did – up from 71% last year. Chairs were more likely to say they did with 86% of respondents in that role reporting to monitor issues relating to staff wellbeing, up from 81% in 2020. Respondents overall were a little less likely to say their boards monitor the workload and wellbeing of executive leaders at 73%.
3,848 governors and trustees of state-funded schools across England responded to the survey. The annual governance survey has taken place since 2011 and is the largest survey of the demographic, views and experiences of the county’s largest volunteer force.
Emma Knights, chief executive of NGA said:
“NGA’s annual school and trust governance survey uncovers the experiences and concerns of those with responsibility for overseeing state schools in the interests of pupils in England. In the absence of any official data on governing boards and their practice, NGA’s data has become very much part of the established evidence the sector can draw on. Governing boards agree the vision and strategy of the school or trust, and so understand the full range of challenges and achievements of our state schools. This unusual past year of COVID changed priorities considerably: for the first time pupil mental health and wellbeing knocked finances off the top slot, and premises made it not just into the list of priorities, but into second place.”
Sam Henson, director of policy and information at NGA said:
“The priorities of the people on the ground who are close to the needs of their school community are very different to the government’s spending and recovery focus. Governors and trustees are volunteering on behalf of their local community and they are best-placed to understand the realities of the impact of the pandemic on their children and young people and what needs focus as a result. The intention of boards – which decide both the strategic priorities of schools and how the budget is spent – is to focus on supporting the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils following a difficult year, ahead of rushing to make up for lost time in the classroom.”