Governing bodies have discovered new – and sometimes better – ways of working, but more importantly they have seen their school communities in a new light, writes Ruby Bhatti

Like other governors everywhere, when the pandemic struck I initially felt helpless in the face of the challenges my schools were facing. The whole world of governance was turned upside down overnight. All in-school engagement halted and as our communication hadn’t yet adapted to video conferencing, all we had was telephone and email with which to deal with the worry and confusion of our school communities, urgent decisions in response to rising cases and the sheer stress of keeping schools running.

As a trustee and chair across MAT and local authority schools, I pivoted rapidly from a monitoring to a supportive role. Amid the uncertainty about the longer-term effect of Covid on pupil outcomes, mental health and wellbeing, one thing was clear: what was important was being a critical friend and a listening ear for school leaders who often felt isolated.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and the upheaval of governance quickly evolved into new ways of working. Unfamiliar technologies quickly became the new norm for board and committee meetings, and these virtual meetings helped us to continue our governance and to support school leaders. Of course there were teething problems. Nothing really prepares you for the learning curve of screens freezing, muted microphones or the occasional family member turning up but, more than a coping strategy, this new way of working has created unity and strength and allowed the show to go on.

And I have no doubt it’s here to stay. Meetings fast-tracked to ensure strategic decisions were taken; better attendance; less stress of travelling; the ability to think differently and include governors from all over the country; leaner agendas; sticking to time; more frequent meetings with a more pragmatic and considerate approach… Who would want to lose that?

What was important was being a listening ear for school leaders who often felt isolated

The teething problems were even harder for teachers, but supporting staff members to enhance their IT skills and adapt their plans in order to keep teaching online was inspiring. Online platforms allowing pupils and staff to work from home were rolled out in a matter of weeks. They are not without drawbacks, of course, but being involved with this transformation of teaching and learning has reminded many governors of the sheer resilience and adaptability that make our teachers so amazing.

Another revelation has been the communication from MATs and local authorities and between them. As chair and trustee, I was fully kept abreast of all developments in DfE and county guidance, and there was a lot of it. Likewise, I received timely communications from school leaders about the actions they’d taken to respond to this ever-changing landscape – and far beyond the job description too! Staff worked tirelessly to ensure pupils received food when not at school and visited families wearing PPE just to ensure the community and its pupils were well.

From a purely governance perspective, effective clerking has been invaluable. Clerks have had an enormous job  to support governors to adapt to remote working, to respond to all our frantic emails as we struggled to do so, and to keep on top of essential business decisions which were, if anything, more numerous than the guidance changes. In my experience, their amazing patience and tolerance has been vital to keeping everything going effectively.

Amid such a heroic effort from everyone, none is more worthy of admiration than those staff members who kept going into school throughout for the benefit of key workers’ and vulnerable children. If governance has been challenging this year, it is because of the sense of duty to them above all.

The vaccine is here now, but no one is safe until we all are safe. So there is still some road to travel, but as we emerge from the crisis in 2021 and hopefully get back to our normal face-to-face routines, we can do so with the confidence that we now have the tools and the skills to adapt rapidly to any new challenges we may face.