Back in March 2020 none of us could have anticipated the impact the pandemic would have on our lives, on education and on school governance.
Almost two years after many governing bodies and trustee boards last met in person it is clear that governance has changed dramatically.
The challenge now facing governing boards and school leaders is to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, by shedding innovative and highly effective practice in a headlong rush back to how it was before the pandemic.
Instead, governors and school leaders need to take stock and ask themselves some fundamental questions about the direction they want to go once the pandemic recedes.
Do we want to go back to a pre-pandemic model of governance? Or should we embrace some of the positive developments made since March 2020 and create a new, more effective model?
A new survey commissioned before the inaugural National School Governors’ Awareness Day, which was held on 22 February, showed that governors generally have ridden out the challenges of the pandemic well and that many of the big changes they had to adopt didn’t impact on their effectiveness – and may even have improved it.
Remote meetings helped to improve attendance at many boards. Governors also reported shorter meetings. This may not be a virtue in itself, but if meeting duration can be cut with little or no negative impact on governor effectiveness then this has to be a bonus. Preparation can help here.
My own experience as a governor is that my colleagues are investing time won back from travelling to and from meetings to thoroughly prepare and consider their questions, and this leads to more efficient, more focused meetings.
We’ve talked about governance structures for years, but the pandemic forced many boards to reflect on the necessity of committees meeting as well as the main board.
That’s led to many governing bodies switching to a flat structure, with no committees and more regular full governing body meetings every six weeks or so.
A key advantage is that all governors are exposed to the full span of governance, rather than operating in committee silos, giving governors a balanced overview of standards of learning, the curriculum and financial efficiency.
This often leads to more balanced and therefore effective decision-making. The need for excellent professional clerking hasn’t changed. Clerks help the effectiveness of governing bodies through supporting the chair and headteacher to construct meeting agendas, act as the guardians of governance compliance and provide timely advice and support.
The pandemic has created a pressurised and challenging workload for everyone involved in school leadership and governors have responded well by finding new and efficient ways of working.
The challenge now for everyone involved in governance is to ensure that, when the time comes, we don’t lose the gains we’ve made by rushing to embrace the old ways of doing things.
Pressures, challenges and new directions
A National School Governors’ Awareness Day survey revealed the challenges faced by school governors during the pandemic and their resilience in the face of huge challenges.
Although 60% of the 212 surveyed agreed the pandemic had made it harder for governors to fulfil their responsibilities, reflecting the restrictions on visiting schools, 63% said that their effectiveness had not been compromised and 19% said that they were actually more effective.
Asked to select one or more statements that closely reflected their views of governance during Covid, more than 80% of respondents agreed that virtual meetings had worked well.
Almost a quarter of respondents (24.5%) agreed with the statement that attendance at meetings had improved.
60% of those surveyed said they had found it easier to attend training as a result of new ways of operating, with 74% telling us that they had attended three hours or more of training since September 2021.
Steve Barker is head of governance services at Strictly Education, which provides professional support, advice to schools across the country. Presentations and resources from the inaugural National School Governors’ Awareness Day are available here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.