Year in review

Governance has emerged transformed and stronger

Continuing crisis has proven the benefits of a re-imagined school governance emboldened in its priorities, writes Ruby Bhatti

Continuing crisis has proven the benefits of a re-imagined school governance emboldened in its priorities, writes Ruby Bhatti

10 Dec 2022, 5:00

Far from the mere bystanders they are sometimes portrayed as – who applaud when all is well and complain when they aren’t – governors and trustees have once again worked voluntarily and tirelessly throughout 2022. Just like the lockdown years, this year has seen governance continue to struggle against unrelenting local and global factors influencing our schools and stubbornly refusing to match up with our school strategic priorities.

In the current economic situation, even medium-term planning has become very challenging, and even the most experienced and skilled boards have at times been unable to fully insulate their  schools. But amid the lingering effects of Covid and the simmering cost-of-living crisis affecting our communities and staff, a new definition of school governance has emerged among strategic leadership team..

In the early months of 2022, with budgets set early, we watched with trepidation as a perfect storm brewed and then broke over the sector. Existing budgetary pressures were worsened by rising energy bills and unfunded pay awards, and all this amid inflation making life less affordable for staff as well as families. The year has mostly been spent diligently supporting leadership teams to continually monitor resources and finance, and as Christmas nears nobody has been able to rule out future restructures.

Meanwhile, we’ve been alert to the effects of all of this on the wellbeing of staff and pupils.  We have monitored workload balance throughout the year, constantly checking that everyone is well and provided with adequate support. But there’s no escaping the impact of the pandemic experience on retention, and the effect has been worsened by low recruitment. As a result, the wellbeing of leaders is now a cause for concern too.

But every cloud has a silver lining, and governors have an important role in pointing those out. For example, recruitment and retention issues have highlighted gaps in equality and diversity and created opportunities to build teams that are reflective and inclusive of the communities we serve.

A perfect storm brewed and then broke over the sector

This year has also been the year we began to rebuild a sense of ‘normality’, with the return of SATs and GCSE and A level exams.

And the community work schools did during Covid has meant that we have been well positioned to reach out to our hardest-hit families. We’ve built even closer relationships with our pupils, parents and carers to ensure they are getting the support they need so that pupils are equipped for learning at school and at home.

Good work has also continued on curriculum development. My governor colleagues and I  have been able to take a more active role in this by visiting schools in person after an 18-month hiatus. And in fact, being able to fully carry out our link roles again – having face-to-face meetings and absorbing the vibrant atmospheres of our schools – has been one of the great joys and rewards of 2022.

In spite of delays with the SEND review caused by political turmoil, our SEND provisions have grown immensely too, thanks to our strategic planning. This includes mental health provision, which the creation of a link governor post, which has allowed us to better support our leadership teams to deliver on this key priority.

Meanwhile, the boards I sit on have also built on the technological development that came with the pandemic response. We have tightened up our safeguarding policies and procedures to ensure that online teaching and home working are safe for our staff and pupils.

So it hasn’t all been about resisting the headwinds. Governors and trustees have pressed on and adapted to a changed climate. We are now more inclusive thanks in part to hybrid meetings. Online platforms mean we are more resilient against unforeseen circumstances too. And we are better trained, thanks to an expansion of online CPD,  conferences and briefings. We are no longer looking at these as innovative short-term solutions; Governance has changed forever.

That gives me hope for 2023 and beyond. Deep challenges lie ahead, not least a shortage of governors across the sector. But if we continue to build quietly on these gains, governance can emerge improved from this period – and perhaps build itself a better portrayal. How would that be for a silver lining.

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