Key governance challenges for academy governance during COVID-19

This article is the first in a series of four blog posts on academy governance during COVID-19 that will be released over the coming month. This week’s post considers the challenges and opportunities associated with adapting to new government guidance for the education sector following the closure of schools. This will be followed by three blogs focused on other evolving challenges, and practical actions that can be taken by academy trust governance professionals, trust boards and senior leaders to meet them.

Delivering school education during COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has had an impact on schools that is simply unprecedented. The cancellation of exams announced in March brought home to colleagues that this would be an end to the academic year like no other. Within less than a fortnight, schools transitioned to primarily delivering lessons to pupils based at home. Feelings of worry for young people and colleagues at this time were mixed with a sense of pride in the school leaders and teachers keeping schools open for children of critical workers, and vulnerable children.

There have been so many instances of professional generosity shown across the sector over the recent weeks. School and trust leaders have been extending free school meals provision and helping with access to devices for pupils without internet or a laptop at home. I have seen friends who are teachers offering one-to-one support to parents through social media who suddenly had to take on this new role of educator overnight. Many charities are sharing their curriculum resources for free – such as Mathematics Mastery, which grew out of multi-academy trust Ark Schools.

The challenge of adapting to new guidance

Mirroring activities across Government, civil servants at the Department for Education have taken on the huge task of updating education legislation and regulation in rapid time. Their work has enabled academy trusts, and their governance functions, to continue to operate in new ways. The updated guidance spans a vast range of areas. For governance in particular, this has included changing approaches to holding board meetings, operationalising safeguarding policies, hearing admissions appeals and delivering safer recruitment checks.

Rising to the challenge

As governance professionals working within the academy sector, we are responsible for translating this guidance for our governance stakeholders. Trustees, committee members and local governors are an amazing group of volunteers who are dedicating their free time to helping lead and guide academy trusts and school communities through this period. There are three things that I have found to be extremely useful to help in rising to this challenge.

First, it is so important to set time aside in the working day to review the guidance. Despite the rapid expansion of to-do lists, I have found that dedicating time each morning to understanding key changes to guidance has enabled me to be well prepared to brief colleagues, board and committee members on up-to-the-minute expectations.

Second, I would recommend drawing from the source, by which I mean going directly to the Department for Education guidance first of all, to see the primarily regulation and legislation as it emerges. The ‘Latest from the Department for Education’ has become one of my most-visited webpages, as it shows the most recently updated guidance notes in reverse date order.

Third, I would say to consult the experts. I have appreciated the swift response of organisations like The Chartered Governance Institute, and the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), that have provided practical resources and tools to deliver the necessary changes. For example, the Institute’s excellent guidance note on Virtual board meetings helped me to prepare properly for upcoming board cycles. Several education law firms are publishing guidance notes and holding webinars for both clients and non-clients alike. This can shortcut the process of creating new documentation, minimising the need to reinvent the wheel.

Understanding Government guidance will form the bedrock of delivering academy governance over the coming week and months – and leveraging and sharing our knowledge saves time. My next blog post will focus on how academy governance professionals can work with trust leaders and Chairs to review and adapt internal delegations during COVID-19.

Anna Machin is a Director of Trust Governance Professionals and is a governance professional working for several academy trusts and charitable organisations. She is an Associate of the Institute and co-delivers the Institute’s Essential Academy Governance training course.

The next Essential Academy Governance course will be delivered online on 19 June 2020. The course is ideal  for academy trust secretaries, clerks, trustees, governors and school leaders who strive for good practice in the development of governance within their trust. This June course will also contain new sections on delivering academy governance during COVID-19.

Trust Governance Professionals runs Trust Governance Insight, a programme that exists to support academy trust governance professionals across England through termly training sessions, briefings, mentoring and peer networks. The Trust Governance Insight team have developed a range of templates and guidance notes for academy trusts adapting their governance practices during COVID-19. To find out more contact Anna at anna@tgpltd.co.uk.

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