2021 in review

The year governance strode towards professionalisation

Looking back on the year in governance, Sharon Warmington welcomes pratices that have made governance more inclusive and new markers or professional recognition

Looking back on the year in governance, Sharon Warmington welcomes pratices that have made governance more inclusive and new markers or professional recognition

14 Dec 2021, 5:00

Like so many governors and trustees, our collective hope was that in 2021 the challenges and difficulties experienced in 2020 would be behind us and we’d be back in our respective schools, with some sense of ‘normality’. However, when the UK announced its third lockdown, our well-planned and strategic focus for the spring and summer terms were again overthrown by Covid, with more robust risk assessments and even more absences, due to outbreaks or the need for isolation. 

As governors, we again dug deep and rose to the challenge of continued virtual meetings and governing from a distance. Evidence of more engagement and better attendance at virtual meetings started to come through, and so did the question, “Do we really want to go back to meetings in school?”

For me, not only as a governor but also a clerk and a corporate governance consultant, virtual meetings won my vote. The ability to click into and then out of a meeting (and to go from meeting to meeting!) without the burden of dealing with traffic and bad weather conditions can’t be underestimated or shouldn’t be undervalued in terms of time management and enjoying an improved work/life balance. There is no question of having been anything but fully present and fully engaged in ensuring the school is moving forward in line with its plans and decisions made at a strategic and operational level.

During 2021 our focus on governance remained, although we occasionally needed to dip into operational discussions. But there has been a definite change in our work. Not only are we setting strategic direction, upholding financial probity and holding the leadership to account as before, but our continuing exposure to the ever-changing challenges and demands on leadership teams has meant governors are increasingly concerned and monitoring the physical and mental health of staff too, not to mention checking the impact of the pandemic and lost education on the children.

Diversity is not a new issue, but it must be a strategic one

Twelve months after the brutal murder of George Floyd, the governance sector shone a much-needed floodlight on itself, recognising the need for governing boards to become more racially diverse. The usual surveys were conducted, all revealing what we already knew: diversity of race at a governance level across UK schools does not reflect the diversity seen at pupil level. Less than one per cent of governors/trustees come from a Black background.

Meanwhile, the National Black Governors’ Network (NBGN) saw a huge increase in enquiries requesting support and training on “how to diversify governing boards”, with a welcome focus on race and age. Diversity is not a new issue, but going forward it must be a strategic one, discussed, monitored, and embraced across the whole sector.

No governance review of 2021 would be complete without highlighting the strides taken in professionalising the sector. The relaunch of the National Leaders of Governance scheme sees them paid and their work clearly defined for a heavily reformed sector since its inception.

Clerks too have seen their role achieve greater recognition and support. They are the hidden gems holding the strategic body together by ensuring we comply with legislation and policy changes. And although this vital professional service is still significantly underpaid, it is great to know that they now have their own free regular newsletter and a professional membership body, the National Association of School and College Clerks, to provide them with CPD, support and advice.

As we move into 2022, we should continue to look forward as governing boards rather than looking back. Some of us are expecting Ofsted to come calling. Some of us are seeing an increase in vacancies on our boards as volunteers leave. Many of us are looking to Omicron with foreboding.

But as governors, it’s not for us to worry. Instead, we must continue to be the change we want to see. For the benefit of the children in our schools and those yet to enter, if our effective governance can’t secure ‘normality’, it can certainly support sustainability.

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