How do governors and trustees make their voices heard at the highest level?

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The annual survey by the National Governance Association gives governors and trustees the chance to explain how their boards work and to raise the issues they really care about.

We’ve been talking to NGA Chief Executive Emma Knights about the current issues facing boards, the future of governance and why it’s more important than ever to have your say right now.

Emma, these are such incredible times for schools – and governing boards – it seems we’re having to redefine governance as we go?

Absolutely, how governing boards go about their business has changed hugely in a short time, although what constitutes good governance remains the same.  I think governing boards have done a really good job of stepping up and thinking again about how they work. We’ve had the move to virtual governing board meetings – although not quite everyone yet and that’s one of the things the survey will help to tell us.

We can find out exactly how many people haven’t moved to virtual meetings and why not – and what we’ll be saying is, ‘This situation is going to continue for some time, we have all got to meet virtually. Particularly with Head Teachers having to make difficult decisions at the moment. These decisions must be made in discussion with governors.’

We’re advising Head Teachers to take their Risk Assessments to full governing board meetings. Governors and trustees need to be able to look at them professionally, together as a board.

When you consider the fact that governors and trustees are volunteers and are all facing things in their own lives – whether it’s about health, job security or trying to work at home with children – it’s impressive that they’ve stayed in place to support their school leaders as best they can. 

How important is that balance between support and challenge at the moment?  

It’s always a difficult call and at different times in a school or trust’s journey – you calibrate that differently, don’t you?

We certainly think that over the past 8 weeks it’s been right that governors and trustees have been much more in ‘support mode’, and although that needs to be continued, at the same time, those Risk Assessments that Heads and Trust Executives are doing have got to be robust.

Governing Boards are obviously the employers, or act in place of the employers, and have a lot of responsibilities. They need to be convinced that the Risk Assessment carried out by their Head is an effective one, and then they can get behind it and help with the communications to the wider community.

That’s another thing that’s really come to the fore over the last few weeks. The idea of schools as part of their communities. For me, this period has really emphasised the role of the governing board as centered and accountable to the community.

Even if you think into the future – when schools are operating more face-to-face again – and you have the issue of children who’ve fallen behind, that community role and engagement with parents will be so important.

If we think back a couple of years, with the onset of MATs, people were beginning to wonder whether local governance had had its day. This is showing it absolutely hasn’t. 

We don’t know when Ofsted will resume its work. Then, of course, we won’t have league tables in the autumn term. We’ve got an opportunity out of this – an important role in providing intelligent accountability for schools and trusts in the absence of those other mechanisms.

Will there be questions about COVID-19 and the current situation in this year’s survey?

Yes there are a few questions on Covid – enough there to be really useful and obviously we’re going to analyse and publish those first. 

Aside from COVID, we still need to know how boards are working and who’s out there doing this work, don’t we. I know in recent years the survey has been able to shine a light on diversity on boards – or rather the lack of?

That’s right, one of the things that really has worried me for a number of years is just how the demographics on boards haven’t changed, especially in terms of age and ethnicity. I think the official line was ‘it will happen over time’, but that’s not what the data was showing.

That’s why we started talking about diversity on boards and with the help of lots of partners, we’ve been pushing recruitment from these groups and it’s working slowly. I would love to see those numbers going up again this year.

How are the results used?

We do a formal written report which we publish at the start of the academic year. 

It is really the only thing out there which captures the practice of governance but also the views of those involved – the things governors and trustees really care about.

For the past few years, finance and funding have been right at the top of the agenda for governors and trustees, followed by staffing issues around welfare, workload and recruitment, and I’m guessing these issues might be even more prevalent this year. Last year the third main issue raised was SEND. This is why the survey’s so important – we can’t just sit here and guess what’s going on in schools and what issues are facing governors and trustees.

One of the things we’ve managed to do is influence the Department for Education’s Governance Handbook. They have changed their wording around diversity to be far stronger than it was 5 years ago. Particularly if you look at the minister’s introduction (obviously it’s the former minister now). The Department has started to highlight some of these issues we’ve been tracking over time. And this year, for example, we will be providing the results on the development of headteachers into the review of the national professional qualifications that the Secretary of State for Education announced just before lockdown.


Have your say by completing the NGA’s Annual Governance Survey, closing date Tuesday 26th May.

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