Governance is not cancelled. In fact, it is now more important than ever. The challenge and support model of governance in academy trusts is adaptable enough to accommodate the uncertainty our schools find themselves faced with if boards remember and apply a few key things.
The core functions of governance:
1. Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction.
The key point here is that strategy is flexible. Vision and ethos are largely fixed. As a board, you will need to consider how to adapt your current strategy to meet the demands of your vision and ethos.
If your vision and ethos is one underpinned by collaboration (as is often the case in a Multi-Academy Trust), then arguably there has never been a better opportunity to bring that vision to life. Understanding this cornerstone will enable you to fulfil the next function of governance.
2. Holding the chief executive/headteacher/accounting officer to account for the performance of the trust, its pupils, and staff.
Yes, exams are cancelled, but assessments are not. Physical face to face lessons are cancelled, but learning is not. Every child only gets one shot at year 8, 9, 10, whatever. Ensure the board understands any new learning strategies and KPIs under newfound circumstances and uses these to hold the trust’s leadership team to account. If practice or performance measure has not been adapted or documented, this will be the first call to action for leadership.
3. Overseeing the financial performance of the trust and ensuring money is well spent.
There are still several questions over the financial implications of the current pandemic, but there are some important ‘knowns’. Funding will be made available for exceptional costs, educational institutions can make some use of the furlough scheme, and all publically funded organisations are expected to continue paying suppliers to the extent that they do not suffer undue loss by losing revenue that ultimately, is derived from central/local government. Working within this frame of reference should offer enough guidance to governing boards to enable decisions overpayments to suppliers, retention of staff and budgetary oversight to be made.
In light of this week’s announcement on easing of lockdown measures, here are some things to be aware of:
The final decision on whether to invite pupils back rests with academy trusts. Schools should only encourage those pupils back when and if their assessment of the risk is that it is safe for both children and staff to do so. School/trust leaders will make this decision following a comprehensive risk assessment, but they should consult trustees who have a duty of care to both staff and pupils. There is an expectation that the Chair/Vice-chair are closely consulting with leadership teams.
As trustees, your role is to test the robustness of the phased reopening plan. Consider whether the options designed by school leaders are sufficient? Have staff and parents been consulted?
A communications strategy is critical. Ensure all board members know and understand the plan and the messages being delivered so they can advocate them on behalf of the trust. Remember that Chairs cannot do it all. Now more than ever, the collegiate nature of the board must be shared among its members.
Summer 2020 agenda items
Most trusts have now cleared any technological hurdles to enable virtual meetings. The governing document of most trusts accommodates the option to hold board meetings digitally, but some require a higher attendance quorum and approval numbers for resolutions to be passed. Check your articles of association under the ‘Meetings of Trustees’ section if you are unsure.
So with that in mind, what should governing boards actually be covering in their meetings between now and the end of the academic year? A good clerk will already be on top of this, but some suggestions as a minimum would be:
- Update from the AO on the current situation including staff structure, recruitment, budget/management accounts presentation, safeguarding, key worker, EHCP and vulnerable children update.
- Review correspondence from DfE/ESFA
- Risk register review
- Report on any monitoring with a sharp focus on statutory duties like safeguarding, health and safety
- Approval of the budget (via the Chief Finance Officer if necessary)
- Approve urgent policy updates
- Check arrangements for panel meetings for exclusions and admissions in light of easing expectations from the DfE
- Consider staffing arrangements for 2020/21
- Resolving outstanding tenders
- Impact on summer holiday projects/CIF bids. – CIF bid results haven’t been announced yet
- The wellbeing of staff.
Approving the forecast outturn for the academic year (AY) 2020 and the budget for AY 2021 may be an area of concern for governing boards.
Guidance regarding the Procurement Policy Notice (PPN), furlough and exceptional costs funding is open to interpretation. We have been working with Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) to support them in making fair and transparent decisions on the best use of public funds. Ultimately governing Boards will have a high degree of autonomy over the following spending decisions:
- When to pay suppliers and when not to?
- Who to furlough, if anybody?
- Whether there is a need for additional staffing – This should be discussed with the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC).
- Which costs are deemed ‘exceptional’ and eligible to claim under the ESFA’s dedicated fund?
- Premises, FSM and cleaning costs are all expected to increase
- When claiming for ‘other costs’, seek reassurance from the CFO that the DFE Corona Virus helpline has been contacted
- Be mindful of the claim limits. Schools with up to 250 pupils can claim up to £25,000. Schools with 1,000 or more pupils can claim up to £75,000.
- Ensure Trust/School isn’t adding to reserves for the AY 2021 year when making a claim.
If you think the trust is taking a view on the subjective nature of the guidance, ensure your rationale is fully documented to avoid an unnecessary challenge by regulators at a later date.
Consider scenario planning for potential phased opening as well as contingency plans and risk management responses for the best and worst case.
Support is also more crucial than ever. Make sure the board checks in with the accounting officer, offering whatever necessary level of support they can. Consider setting up a standing committee for the COVID-19 response. It may include committee chairs and the chair of the trust to pass approvals more efficiently on general logistics and strategy to aid the smooth running of the trust in these times. This should be assessed based on the complexity of the trust and the willingness of the wider board to be involved in issues related to COVID-19.
Support for governing boards is still available
In the same way that COVID-19 has brought our local communities together in support of each other, the same can be said for the educational community. There are so many resources to tap into, some which were not previously available without a subscription.
The Key for School Governors has a dedicated COVID-19 section, as does the National Governance Association and ICSA. The National Governance Association have also opened its Gold Line to all working in academy trust governance. It covers any questions regarding strategic, procedural and legal information about governance.
This post was written by Tom Meeks, Director in the Corporate team and Academies specialist. If you are concerned about governance and have any questions on what this means for you and your academy, please contact Tom using the form below.
We always recommend that you seek advice from a suitably qualified adviser before taking any action. The information in this article only serves as a guide and no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of this material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.