Decisions over reopening schools “weighed heavily” on school governors who say a “lack of clarity” from authorities, “nonsensical” competing demands and pressure from unions caused “widespread frustrations”.
The concerns are revealed in the ‘Governing in unprecedented times’ study published today by Ofsted and the National Governance Association.
One of the main concerns from governors and trustees centred on a lack of clarity about where the decision lay to reopen schools.
“Chairs generally felt strongly that the lack of clear advice and guidance from central and local government added to the workload of governing during COVID-19 and the responsibility that came with it,” the report stated.
“One chair told us that: ‘I would certainly not sign up knowing what I know now’.”
A “few” governors said their involvement in decisions to partially reopen schools and in creating the risk assessments to make sure children, staff and parents were safe “weighed heavily on them”.
“They told us how ‘the consequences of making the wrong decisions means that’s been difficult’, and how ‘the responsibility on governors has been massive to make these decisions that affect peoples’ lives and their well-being’.”
They also spoke of how the government made “critical” announcements in the evenings or during school holidays.
Schools Week revealed in June how the government had published nearly 100 coronavirus guidance updates in the space of a few months – a quarter of which were issued at anti-social hours.
Governors were also “critical of the amount of information and guidance from central and local government, and the responsibility on them to read lots of paperwork at short notice before making key decisions”.
One said: “Trying to put risk assessments in place which take into account the legal requirement, the DfE requirement, the trade union requirement and the PHE [Public Health England] requirement has just been nonsensical.”
Meanwhile, several governors also described how some teaching unions “created additional pressure on leaders in the run-up to schools reopening from 1 June.”
It adds: “Governors and trustees understood unions’ concerns but felt that unions’ announcements advising staff not to engage in planning for a return to work had added a layer of uncertainty in an already difficult situation.
“Not knowing if, or how many, staff might choose not to return to work was just ‘back-loading the pressure’ already felt by schools and those governing.”
Schools Week revealed in May how unions had fired off a Covid-19 “liability” warning shot to school and college leaders – quoting the health and safety laws “you are exposing yourself to by following the current deeply flawed guidance”.
But some governors did say they had “good support and information that headteachers had received from leadership associations”.
The study had 400 expressions of interest from governors, which were then whittled down to 28 to represent different types of schools across England who were then asked to take part in focus groups in early June and July.
While the report says it was a “small-scale research project”, it was run to “understand the decisions and actions of governors and trustees in response to the short- and longer-term challenges presented by lockdown measures”.
Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman said: “The challenge and support that governors and trustees bring will no doubt be even more crucial as schools reopen to all pupils.
“Children have missed out on a great deal in recent months. Every part of the system must play its part in making the return to school a success.”
Emma Knights, chief executive, National Governance Association, added governing boards have “adapted remarkably well to governing remotely, keeping on top of essential business and responding to a fast-changing landscape”.
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.