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Navigating the storm - how to 'govern well' in times of challenge

Article image navigating the storm

Harry James is a governance expert, an ex-National Leader of Governance and a member of IGovS, an organisation setup to ‘plug a gap’ in the governance sector, providing informal support and mentoring to governing boards from across the maintained and academies sector. 

Harry’s picking up a lot of concern from boards at the moment about how to fulfil their role when so many schools are still struggling with ongoing issues related to the pandemic.

Harry, what are people telling you?

The major concern that I’m picking up at the moment is this dilemma that, on the one hand boards know they need to hold leaders to account for the educational performance of their school or trust, and also that one of their main responsibilities is safeguarding, and I’d include in that the wellbeing of senior leaders and staff. Yet there is this present set of challenging circumstances involving staff and pupil absences, additional workload for staff related to that and a huge amount of resulting stress which is contributing to even more sickness and absence.

There is also the ever-present concern of an Ofsted inspection. In light of this, governors and trustees want to know how to balance these issues; how to fulfil their role while at the same time not adding to the stress and pressure on leaders and staff.

There are a number of things boards might want to consider:

1. Recognise and acknowledge the situation

So many things can be made better or worse by good or bad communication. The first step should be talking to key stakeholders and explaining the situation - letting staff, senior leaders, families and pupils know what’s happening. In the case of staff, you might want to explain that you understand and are aware of the current pressures they’re facing. In the case of families, you might want to let them know that the school is currently in a difficult situation and having to prioritise the education and safeguarding of the children over other less critical things which are being deferred in the short term.

2. Prioritise and focus

Once you've acknowledged the situation, this leads to prioritisation and focus. How often have you heard the phrase,‘The thing that really matters is the children’. People say this time and again and yet they don’t always do it - prioritise the teaching and learning and safeguarding of pupils and staff. That is what I’d ask the board of governors or trustees to do. Reassess what they’re doing and prioritise.

You may well say those are your key priorities anyway, but what I’m talking about is accepting that you cannot do everything you had planned in the present circumstances and then deciding which tasks to defer or put off. To give you a practical example, look at your school development plan and consider if there is anything that can be deferred to next term or next year.

Also performance management. If you look at the objectives of the senior leadership team and they in turn look at the objectives of staff, there are probably objectives which have been so impacted by COVID-19 that it would be impossible to achieve them. Don’t waste time encouraging leaders to achieve something that’s not possible - focus on something else. 

In terms of governors and staff, I would say look at your meetings schedule. If staff are scheduled to present to governors on particular areas or subjects - do they really need to? Can it be deferred? Is it something that will add to their workload and stress? Would they be better off doing something else? These are questions only governors and staff can answer. 

Also look at your agendas between now and the end of the summer term and decide what is still a priority. Are you making the best use of time? Prioritise and plan the meetings and agendas accordingly. I’d also suggest thinking about how each meeting is held. If you’re having an important board meeting, personally I’d have those face-to-face, but a short, 40 minute meeting about a committee structure - have that virtually. It’s about getting the most out of any kind of meeting.

A good clerk or governance professional should be able to help in steering on some of these issues too.

3. Be creative

Now this isn’t a word you’d traditionally associate with governance but I think it’s useful to think along these lines, especially when there isn’t the same kind of performance data available to us at the moment. Boards might want to scrutinise the performance of the pupils and a school leader might not be able to provide the usual data due to absences and other related issues.

Don’t get caught up in the notion of ‘we’ve always done it this way, at this time’ and then throw your hands up in the air because it’s no longer possible. See what the situation is on the ground, look at what data is available, such as teacher assessment, and then adapt and do your scrutiny on the data available. You need to find whatever information you can about how pupils are being educated.

In situations like this, governor visits become very important for two reasons. One is that you can see what it’s like on the ground, which is impossible to get if you’re not physically there and the other reason is that it reinforces the support from the governors - you’re in there, you’re saying you understand and you’re helping.

I recently became a governor of a primary school and haven’t been able to visit the school for three months. I went in last week and it was completely different to what I was expecting. The headteacher, who I had only met virtually, appeared to be getting quite a lot of challenge which she responded to. When I went into school she showed me another side; she had such pride in her school, was enthusiastic, and I was able to witness first hand all the great things that were happening. I got a totally different perspective.

4. Ensure regular catch ups between the Headteacher and Chair

These meetings are important anyway, but especially in challenging circumstances. Find out how staff morale is? How are absences? What are the problems you’re having to deal with at the moment? Being a headteacher is a lonely role so having someone to talk things over with and providing support from the governing board is really, really helpful.

Most boards  I deal with are concerned with the challenge side of their role as they think that’s one of their core functions (quite rightly). This is one of those areas where school leaders need lots of support - yes they still need the challenge - but they need lots of support and governing boards need to show that.

5. Show Ofsted that you’re doing all you possibly can and evidence it

Boards need to be able to articulate that they’re doing everything they possibly can and then evidence it - in terms of monitoring data, providing challenge but also in terms of providing  support.  

Where some things haven’t been possible, you need to demonstrate that you haven’t just said ‘well,we can’t do that because there’s no data available’. Show that you’ve looked for alternatives such as teacher assessment or governor visits, show that you recognise you still need to challenge and that it’s your responsibility to make sure the children are being well educated.

If you have a school improvement partner, I’d suggest asking them to come in and review the curriculum and performance in school, but also asking them to come and talk to the board first and ask them to review your performance too. Explain that you’re concerned about the way in which you’re governing the school and ask them to look at that as well. If they report back that you’re doing some things well but others could be improved - use that advice and work on it.

6. Task and finish groups

You can call this kind of group whatever you like but its purpose is to focus on one specific task that needs to be done that has a specific lifespan. Pick a group of people, usually led by governors but it can involve staff or parents too and set out a small project to complete. This not only spreads the workload but it also allows for focus. It stops something becoming a rolling item on an agenda that never gets looked at due to limited time and gives responsibility to a small group but also liberates them because it allows them just to think about that.

About IGovS

Harry says that IGovS has found is a gap in the governance sector, 'We are almost like a helpline organisation in that people can contact us and say "I’ve got a problem and don’t know what to do about it". We’re a pool of very experienced governors and professionals across all sectors: maintained, special needs and academy trusts. We’ve always got somebody who’s had a similar experience and is willing to help. Quite often it will be a 15 min phone call and a chat and people find that very helpful. Boards don’t always need a 3 day external review of governance, they want that short-term support on a particular issue'. You can read more about how IGovS came to be set up in our recent blog.


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