From brown envelopes to the cloud, how the internet has changed school governance

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When I was a child at primary school in Norwich, I would often be given a big brown envelope of papers marked “confidential” to take home to my mum who was Chair of Governors. This was governance 1980s style.

It was a time when people were beginning to buy their first home computers. For my family, it was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and much anticipation as we waited 20 minutes for Horace Goes Skiing to load (only for it to crash soon after). Fun as this was, computers in the 80s were yet to provide any serious solutions for improving school governance.

Things have moved on a fair bit since – first with the introduction of emails and latterly the rise of cloud computing. In 2019, there really is no need for big brown envelopes or email distribution lists.

So when the DfE recently called for a crackdown on school staff who do too much colour printing, it got us thinking. It reminded us of the piles of print-outs which used to be a key feature of many school governing board meetings. Perhaps also a time to reflect on how things have changed, even in the past few years.

Roger Kingsnorth is Chair of Governors at Raglan Junior School in Enfield and has seen the changes firsthand. He says the sheer volume of paperwork that used to come his way was a huge problem – from storing it, to filing it and then how (and when) to get rid of it:

“I’d just retired when I first became a governor and I simply wasn’t geared up for having this much paperwork at home. I had limited storage space – no filing system and no shredder. It was a great relief to move paper-free.

More and more of us use tablets and laptops in our meetings. Some of us are of an age where we can’t manage being entirely paper free and we like to be able to take notes and sometimes have a printed copy of things in front of us. I tend to have a copy of the agenda printed out in front of me but all the other documents I have on a laptop that I take into meetings with me.”

Catherine Barton became a governor at Thorn Grove Primary School, in Bishop’s Stortford six years ago and says she was shocked by how paper-heavy things were compared to her workplace:

Back then it was routine to have significant numbers of hard copy minutes and agendas at meetings. There was a lot of last-minute paper circulation and tabling with no time to read, as well as confusion about meeting dates as these were pencilled into paper diaries and then sometimes revised.

These days our meetings are much more paper-free. Most people bring a tablet or laptop or even just manage on their phone and there is no excuse for not having read the papers because the clerk normally posts them online well in advance”

Charles Runcie is Chair of Governors at Ronald Ross School in Wandsworth, London – the board has just decided to move its documents into the cloud. He says issues came to a head recently and governors agreed the time to modernise was now.

“We needed to approve a series of policies at our next meeting. All sixteen policies were sent to our email inboxes – they ranged in length from one to twenty pages. It was an enormous dump of word documents. I thought ‘Oh my goodness, who’s going to read all that?’.

My vice-chair said in our next meeting that it was getting ridiculous, all these documents swilling around in our inboxes. That’s when it came to a head.”

The board aren’t technophobes, according to Charles, but lead busy lives and are aware that adopting a new piece of software can take time and energy.

As Charles rightly says, going paper free isn’t without its issues. Governors need to remember their passwords, WiFi networks need to be working, software requires upgrading. A headache for some who can find technology a challenge at the best of times.

At GovernorHub we recognise these issues and it’s one of the main reasons we provide a help desk for users who need the odd helping hand (“have you tried turning it off and on again?”).

So, if your board is still on its modernising journey and would like to find out more about how things work here at GovernorHub, do get in touch. We’ll endeavour to help you get set up – you can even try GovernorHub for free for a month. Perhaps it’s finally time to wave goodbye to the big brown envelopes once and for all.

By Jo Phillips – GovernorHub.

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