Richard Ellam is the Head of School and Trust Support at Inspiring Governance. Previously a trustee at two academy trusts, he is now Chair of Governors at Rockwood Academy in Birmingham.
Richard has worked with hundreds of schools and trusts across England and is currently involved in a pilot programme to evaluate the possibilities of virtual governance. With this, and his personal experience of recruiting and working with virtual governors, Richard has put together three things we’re learning about remote governance.
Pre Covid-19, remote school governance, defined as volunteers living further away than a reasonable commute and with no expectations to physically attend meetings, was rare.
Is there now a serious future for remote school governance? The short answer is – it’s too early to say. But, if I was a betting man forced to put my shirt on it, I’d say yes.
Inspiring Governance has launched a pilot programme to better understand if remote governance can work beyond a niche use, and if so, what applications it has, and which factors and good practices do we need to consider, to make it work well. It is also one very good reason why the school governing board I chair has two remote governors, who I am glad to say are already adding value.
You could say that I am experiencing remote governance in action at the sharp end. So, for any of you trailblazers out there wanting to give it a go, these are my reflections so far.
ONE: It pays to work out your expectations as a school and a board beforehand and produce terms of reference that you can share with any prospective remote governors.
This is exactly what CORE Education Trust did when becoming the first organisation to sign up to our remote governor pilot project. In CORE’s case the expectations of remote volunteers were:
- No more than two remote governors on a board
- To attend 6 meetings per year online as a remote governor every half-term. Usually on Mondays from 5:30-7:30pm
- To maintain a digital connection with the school to absorb its culture by following on social media and reading regular digital school newsletters
- To make at least one physical visit to the school each year for a walk-round
- To take on a link role and regularly liaising with their assigned member of staff to report back to the governing board
While going through this exercise, you may conclude that only certain link governor roles are appropriate for members who are remote. For example, a Safeguarding Link might be expected to have more of a physical presence at the school, whereas a Link Governor focussing on Pupil Premium could be more data focussed, hence making it a role more conducive to being remote.
Abbas and Templecombe Primary School in Somerset recently joined our pilot programme to fill a skills gap in finance – a role they felt was well suited to remote governorship.
TWO: While we’re not quite yet ripping up the rulebook, we do need to reassess how our boards conduct business.
It didn’t take too many online governing board meetings during lockdown to realise that things were not quite business as usual. The dynamics were different for a start. As we efficiently whizzed through agendas, yet when the matters in hand were more challenging, the courageous conversations required were more difficult with some members on videoconference. Case studies from the DfE NfER research also found this to be the case, which you can see here.
The spectre of hybrid meetings and the blend of virtual and live attendees that remote governance raises, brings similar and additional challenges, including how we chair them, how we ensure that all voices are heard equally and even what tech we use.
As a Chair myself at Rockwood Academy, an inner-city secondary school with two remote governors on the board, I believe that it’s often my role to expressly invite our remote governors into discussions. Encouraging questions, aware that the non-verbal cues that we so often rely on in the physical space can be missed. Holding more conversations ‘in the wings’ while being sensitive to conducting ourselves transparently. Investing in tech to make the experience more accessible for all, ever reliant on the support of our super experienced professional clerk.
Then we have the potential minefield of remote monitoring. Because carrying out visits and meeting pupils, staff and other stakeholders is vital to us knowing our schools. But here we can also be creative. Take Chris, the Headteacher of a school in Wimbledon, who remotely governs at a secondary Academy in Birmingham, and who despite only being in the role a matter of months has already conducted regular virtual visits to the school with the help of supportive and willing, tech savvy staff members and an iPad.
THREE: We must ensure that our remote volunteers feel connected with the school.
Another challenge for governing boards during lockdown has been ensuring that our newly appointed virtual governors, many of whom may not have set foot in the school, feel connected to its pupils, workforce and (in some cases) the wider community. It’s a concern with regards to our remote governors too. Even more so, as they could in theory live on the other side of the country. (In fact, in some case, they could even be in another country!)
We could also consider governor buddy schemes for new members. Pairing experienced governors who live close to the school with new remote ones residing many miles away. But ultimately, what we’re really talking about here is a robust induction process (something that I believe we could be way better at in general on governing boards anyway, but that’s another blog!)
Last November (2020) the National Governance Association released a “Guide to virtual governance: meetings, monitoring and induction”. You must be an NGA member to access it, but it’s a useful read. It mentions all the usual nuggets, like virtual meetings with key people such as the Head and the Chair, as well as providing an information pack to new members, but it also suggests assigning mentors to new governors, conducting “virtual school visits” to meet pupils and staff, as well as “virtual shadowing” at governing board committees.
Ultimately there are lots of things that we can do to make remote governance work. But we need to get our thinking caps on and put our backs into it.
But why go to all this effort? And if we do buy into it, how do we get involved?
Remote governance could be a powerful resource to build stronger and more diverse governing boards, allowing a broader range of voices and a greater concentration of in demand skills where they are needed the most. It will not be for everyone, but I can imagine many situations why (if implemented correctly) remote governors will add value in spades.
If you are a school, MAT, LA or Diocese interested in testing out the water to recruit remote governors and trustees, get in touch. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org