Coronavirus: what governors need to do now

13 Apr

We are going through testing times, worse than those experienced during the 2008 financial crash, and probably the worst since World War II.  At least, in the last world war, the enemy was visible.  Not so Covid 19, the virus that has ravished the planet.  Governing boards, like the schools and academies they oversee and serve, will have to adapt rapidly to a new way of working, understand what’s expected of the chair and how all governors can support their institutions, during this period of prolonged closure.

The Key, a governors’ organisation, has produced some excellent advice for the chair of the governing board during these testing times. What follows is a synopsis of that advice which has been put together for The Key by Lucinda Bell, a senior lawyer specialising in education law, Jacqueline Baker, an education consultant who specialises in senior leadership recruitment, and Gulshan Kayembe, an independent consultant who has been an inspector.

I      Preamble

Since schools and academies closed for most pupils on 23 March, headteachers and staff members have had to get to grips with a whole new way of working.   Leaders ae running things quite differently and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  The role of chair of the board of a school/academy board will evolve too.  Meanwhile, what can the chair do best to discharge her/his functions?

(a)     Support the headteacher

What a headteacher considers to be supportive and how much of that s/he needs from the chair will depend on the headteacher on the one hand and the capabilities of the chair on the other.

(b)     Take the lead from the headteacher

The most important thing for the chair is to let her/his headteacher know that s/he is available to the headteacher and ask her/him how frequently both should communicate with and contact each other.  There’s a fine line between support and getting in the way.

(c)      Be the link between the school/academy and the board

The chair should let governors know that all communication with the school/academy should be managed through the chair. Though well-meaning, a flurry of emails will simply burden school leaders.  It is critical to head this off at the outset.

The chair should let governors know that s/he will be communicating with them, possibly on a weekly or fortnightly basis by email.

(d)     Be a sounding board

The chair could be asked about operational decisions by the headteacher, who should be given the opportunity to run these past her/him.  The chair’s role here is to act as a sounding board, not to hijack the headteacher’s powers and responsibilities. If asked by the headteacher what s/he should do in a specific instance, the chair should offer thoughts and then be prepared to step back. The actual decision sits with the headteacher.

(e)      Show the headteacher and staff some love

The chair could write a letter of support from the whole board to the headteacher and staff to demonstrate appreciation.  This can go a long way to making the headteacher and staff feel supported and valued.

II     Meetings

(a)     Holding remote, ‘virtual’ meetings

The chair should avoid all non-essential contact, and this includes governing board meetings. The DfE is advising boards to use alternative arrangements, like video or teleconferencing, instead of face-to-face meetings. The Key has provided very good guidance about holding meetings “virtually”. This can be accessed here.

On a practical level, the chair must plan for what to do if s/he and the vice chair aren’t available for a meeting or to support the headteacher and maintain contact with the school/academy.

Review succession planning and make sure each governor knows when s/he is expected to step up.

Also plan for the possibility of the clerk being unavailable. One of the governors (but not the headteacher) is allowed to step in to clerk a meeting, if needed.

(b)     Be sensible about agenda items

Meetings should focus on urgenttime-bound decisions. Some examples of items on which to focus are as follows.

  • Approval of the Schools Financial Value Standards document to be submitted to the local authority (maintained schools), if not done so already.
  • Approving the budget
  • Approving pay recommendations
  • Recruiting a headteacher (if relevant)
  • Staff restructures (if relevant)

The governing board would be forgiven if it delayed consideration of the following.

(c)      When to use chair’s action

If something urgent arises and it’s not possible for the board to meet, the chair has the power to act during the emergency such as updating the vital child protection policy or handling an urgent press response.

III    Decide how to handle statutory procedures

There may be some time-bound matters that will have to be delayed, given the extraordinary circumstances.  Here is a sample.

(a)     Grievances and disciplinary appeals

The board can continue these remotely if all parties agree to do so and if it’s practicable (e.g. all witnesses can attend remotely, evidence can still be gathered, etc). If anyone demurs, governors will have to defer these until the school/academy re-opens.

(b)     Exclusions

The government closed schools and academies on 23 March 2020. However, they continue to remain open for a small number of pupils. This has caused some confusion about whether they’re closed for the purposes of statutory timelines for considering exclusions.

The DfE has confirmed to The Key previously that ‘school days’ for the purpose of statutory deadlines like this are the 190 teaching days of the regular school/academy year. Though the DfE hasn’t explicitly said that meetings to consider exclusions should be deferred during this time, it’s difficult to imagine how these would be considered working days. Accordingly, it is justifiable to defer considering exclusion cases until schools and academies re-open.

(c)      Complaints

If the school/academy receives a complaint during the closure, the chair should suggest to the headteacher that s/he could write an initial response to:

  • outline the school’s/academy’s position (e.g. if it’s about a child not getting a place because the school/academy decided the parent wasn’t a ‘critical worker’, the head must explain how the decision was made) and
  • explain that that the current situation means the school/academy can’t follow its usual complaints procedures until it’s re-opened.

IV    Streamline monitoring

Monitoring should focus on essential areas during this period. They are the following.

  • Safeguarding
  • Health and safety
  • Headteacher and staff wellbeing
  • Continuing education

To a lesser extent, the board will also want to monitor how the school/academy is continuing to provide an education for pupils. In line with the government’s guidance on social distancing and self-isolation, board members should not monitor the school/academy in person, or arrange in-person meetings with staff, unless it is necessary.

(a)     Monitoring safeguarding

The chair, or the link governor for safeguarding, special educational needs or the Pupil Premium, should be responsible for this area.   Other governors can feed in as necessary.

The governor with responsibility for safeguarding could arrange a call with the headteacher, designated safeguarding lead (DSL) or special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) to talk about the following matters.

  • How the school/academy is making sure vulnerable pupils are kept safe (including those who are at home, rather than at the school/academy), and whether these plans are working well.
  • How the school/academy is working with the local authority (LA) to safeguard vulnerable pupils.
  • How the school/academy is checking on all pupils who are staying at home.
  • How pupils, especially vulnerable pupils who are still coming into the school/academy, are coping.
  • Whether staff have concerns about any pupils who aren’t technically categorised as ‘vulnerable’ by the DfE, and what the school/academy is doing for these pupils.
  • How the school/academy is supporting pupils who are eligible for free school meals, and whether pupils are accessing this provision.
  • If the school/academy is delivering remote lessons and what safeguarding arrangements are in place to keep pupils safe.
  • The arrangements that the LA may have made to create ‘hub’ schools/academies, and what impact they could have on safeguarding arrangements.
  • Any support that staff members need from the chair.

Vulnerable children means children who are supported by social care and those with safeguarding and welfare needs, including the following.

  • Pupils with child-in-need plans
  • Pupils on child protection plans
  • Looked-after children
  • Young carers
  • Disabled children
  • Pupils with education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

School leaders will work closely with social workers and parents to decide on arrangements for specific pupils.

School leaders must work with the LA to set reasonable safeguarding procedures (for instance, around ID checks for parents they don’t know) in the “hub” schools/academies.

(b)     Monitoring health and safety

The health and safety link governor (if there is one) should monitor health and safety.  In the absence of this person, the responsibility falls to the chair.

The responsible governor should arrange a call with the headteacher or school/academy business manager to talk about the following.

  • The arrangements the school/academy has in place to maintain social distancing for staff and pupils on site
  • Wider health and safety arrangements (such as having a first aider on site, an increased cleaning rota or locking down certain parts of the school/academy building)
  • The continued safety of the school/academy building, including any previously raised premises issues
  • Any support that staff need

(c)      Monitoring headteacher and staff well-being

Responsibility for monitoring the well-being of the headteacher and staff falls to the designated governor or in her/his absence, the chair.

The designated governor should raise the following matters with the headteacher.

  • Any support s/he and/or their staff need
  • How staff members are adapting to remote working, or working with a skeletal number of staff members
  • Whether all staff members have the resources they need to work from home
  • Any illness among staff

In these exceptional circumstances, the headteacher will be bombarded with considerable information and several demands (from the LA, the DfE, unions and anxious parents – to name a few). The most important thing is to be the headteacher’s ally.

Staff members who are working remotely, especially if they have their own children at home, are probably going to take some time to adjust. It’s important that the school/academy doesn’t overburden them heavy workloads to compensate for not being on site.

(d)     How to monitor continuing education

The chair should assume responsibility for continuing education.  Other designated governors for the different areas of the curriculum should cede to her/him to enable the headteacher to keep in contact with the minimum number of governors.  The chair should lean on link governors to feed into any conversations about remote learning.

The chair should talk to the headteacher about the following.

  • The school’s/academy’s approach to remote learning and addressing the following.
    • Is the school/academy sending resource packs home? Are teachers recording video lessons?
    • How much work does the headteacher and staff expect pupils to do?
  • Any guidance or support the school/academy has given to parents about helping their children’s learning at home.
  • The balance of learning activities for pupils who are still attending the school/academy.

School/academy leaders will need to navigate a lot of challenges around remote learning, including the following.

  • Access to technology at home.
  • The fact that pupils may not be in a very effective learning environment (for instance, if they’re sharing small spaces with siblings, or have parents balancing childcare with working from home).
  • How capable parents are of supporting their children’s learning (many school/academy leaders are emphasising embedding existing learning, because teaching pupils new things remotely can be difficult).
  • How equipped the school/academy is to take on more tech-led types of remote teaching.

The Department for Education (DfE) doesn’t have any expectations about what remote teaching should look like.  All the DfE wants is for schools/academies to plan engaging activities that encourage children to log on.

(e)      Sharing information with fellow governors

Chairs, or whoever carries out the monitoring activities above, should report back to the full governing board regularly. You can do this via email.  This will ensure all governors are up-to-date or can step in to help monitor the school/academy or support the headteacher if the chair or another governor isn’t available.  Regular updates will also help the board start to think about the impact of the closure on issues related to governors’ link roles or committees.

For instance, if the school/academy can’t run after-school/after-academy clubs, this may impact the school’s/academy’s budget.

V      Keep details on GIAS up to date

Make sure you know who to get in touch with to keep contact information updated on Get information About Schools.  The government will use this to communicate with governors, and some of that information may require quick and decisive action.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to avoid mixed messages. Should parents approach the chair and/or other governors directly with questions or complaints about the school/academy, refer them:

  • directly to the headteacher, or
  • to the school’s/academy’s complaints procedures. However, dealing with formal complaints is likely to be deferred until schools/academies re-open.

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