Governance during COVID

20 Apr 2021 | by Craig Smith

As a Chief Operating Officer (COO) in a school Trust and an experienced school governor I have been reflecting on how governance has adapted during COVID – here are a few thoughts on the challenges and how they have been met in our Trust.

The key headline for me is how successful governance has been in adapting to a new context – both in how governance activity takes place (yes, online meetings and at different times, we are all used to that now) but also in adapting to the focus of governance morphing to face new (and existing) challenges.

The traditional context of support and challenge remains – built around the DfE expectations in the Governance handbook, the Ofsted framework and Academies Financial handbook requirements of vision, performance and financial responsibility - but this has sat alongside a set of different challenges for governance; time will tell how temporary or otherwise this will be.

At Bedfordshire Schools Trust (BEST) we have followed national advice and asked governors to be mindful of the new context for leadership in schools and to not demand too much additional activity from school leaders during the pandemic (and whilst we are on this point this surely should be the norm anyway?).

We have seen practical changes e.g. reports and data have become more streamlined – without any perceptible reduction in quality in my view. Governors have also become more interested in wellbeing and morale issues – for staff and learners alike. Budgets have been viewed slightly differently – whether that be asking about the impact of loss of generated income or increased COVID related costs.

The reality of governors not being able to visit schools is an area where it is difficult to replicate the experience of a physical visit, but schools have worked hard to fill the void – I have seen excellent YouTube videos of reopening plans or new governors successfully inducted during COVID. I also think the SBPs in BEST have been more visible to governors during COVID – be that talking through Risk Assessments or updating Health and Safety procedures.

As I reflect on these changes, and many more, I ponder whether we have seen permanent changes to governance? Time will tell how many schools will switch to fully online or a hybrid model. It will also be interesting to watch if data and reporting continues to be more streamlined as we move forward. One area I would very much welcome the return of is governor visits to schools – truly effective governance always has an appropriate governor presence at its core. Overall, I suspect we will see the traditional role of governance as described by DfE, Ofsted and the AFH, returning to its central role but governors having a broader overview of schools as COVID will have shaped perceptions of the role (and good governance arguably always encompassed this scope).

My main reflection on COVID and governance is that the shared core drive of delivering education to your local community has been reinforced during (and because of the challenges of) COVID – school leaders and governors have come together in a powerful way with a determination to serve young people and the families they come from in a way that has never been quite so tangible. Schools, and their governors, have responded to their communities like never before – I reflect with real pride on some of the ways I have seen local schools support those in need in their locality. Governance during COVID has grown and developed as schools have rightfully reclaimed, redesigned and reinforced these links to the local community.

For me this also creates an opportunity to review the accountability frameworks for schools – maybe shifting to a purer accountability model where accountability encompasses views on how people think and feel about the services schools provide ( ).

Arguably, governance has never been stronger or more important – this may be critical as we move forward given recent comments from the Secretary of State on the COVID impact on behaviour in schools. Schools and governors will be managing the fall out from COVID as wellbeing and mental health issues emerge. There is already evidence of trauma and we sit on a spectrum of fragility – governance and the wider school/Trust leadership will be key to recognising accepting and managing this significant challenge.

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