Governors urged to use a “collaborative approach” as we move into the future at Governance Conference 2021

26th March 2021

Schools North East was joined by over 300 delegates virtually for the fifth annual Governance Conference 2021. The two-day event had a focus on a variety of topics aimed to reach those who were new Governors all the way up to those who are experienced in the role.

Once again due to the Coronavirus pandemic the event was delivered virtually making the conference easily accessible to all Governors. We were delighted to be joined by delegates from all across the country stretching down to Cornwall.  The conference was an opportunity to gain valuable CPD and support for those in a variety of governance roles, which has become even more important in these particularly challenging times.

The conference kicked off with opening remarks from the Director of Schools North East, Chris Zarraga, who acknowledged that the times that we are in have been different but brought a positive message as we move forward into the future with the rollout of the vaccine with a return to normality edging closer, taking time to send a thank you to Governors:

“School governors are the biggest volunteer force in the country and, throughout the current crisis, have shown a truly extraordinary devotion to duty, to support our schools as they need and deserve.”

However, he urged Governors to not settle back to how it was before the pandemic but to strive for further excellence as the old “normal should not be good enough”, referring to Schools North East’s Post-Covid Regional Plan which is not looking to catch-up but to reform. Additionally, there was reflection on the past 12 months since the nation was locked down with the underlying principles of our Manifesto for Education being “more important now than ever” as there has been an abandonment of strategic planning for education nationally, with little consideration of the wider issues of the return to “normal”. 

Day One

We were joined by Hannah Stolton, CEO of Governors for Schools, as a keynote speaker whose session was “How to Effectively Challenge” as a school Governor. The keynote address looked back at the past year and how the key challenge was finding a balance between the obstacles which the pandemic has posed and continuing their much needed support to schools. Hannah posed the question: why is challenge critical in the governor role? As well as focussing on balancing challenge and support, what and when to challenge, asking those questions that will ensure effective challenge, risk management and creating robust accountability. There was an emphasis on the importance of school Governors asking questions as “the questions we ask show that we care” as well as explaining that the dynamics of Governance has changed to become more rewarding.

The first day also saw sessions from Fiona Stagg, an experienced Chair of Governors and Trustees, National Leader of Governance and an independent Clerk to Governors who imparted wisdom for new Governors explaining that “Governance is about steering not rowing.”  Andy Mellor, National Wellbeing Director for Schools Advisory Service, looked at strategic understanding of wellbeing to support an effective whole school wellbeing culture, explaining that support for mental health and wellbeing should be proactive not reactive in order to avoid “fishing people out when they fall in.”  We were also joined by Claris D’cruz a consultant at Wrigleys Solicitors whose session “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” explained how challenge and difference are at the heart of a good board with different perspectives underpinning effective governance and the necessity to be reflective of your school community. Jacqui Ridley & Louise Levy of Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust also reflected on the role of Governors in monitoring remote learning and what we can learn from this to apply in the future.

Networking Session

Relationships are a key aspect of a Governor’s role, and networking is an integral part of Schools North East’s purpose so despite current restrictions we were delighted to offer the opportunity for a virtual networking session as part of the conference. Again joined by Governors from all over the country, this was a chance to reflect on what has been learnt in the last year, and the role governance has played in the response to the pandemic. Many governors felt the past year had seen whole school communities – students, parents and staff – coming together more closely. Many governors felt that it was now important to have a greater focus on wellbeing, and were particularly concerned about that of staff. One governor highlighted how staff have been in a constant ‘emergency response’ and running on adrenaline.

Going forward, there was a clear consensus that schools now need strategy and clarity from DfE for the future – not just the next few months but the next few years. This includes clarity around Ofsted and ensuring we aren’t plunged back into a high-stakes accountability environment, while still dealing with the impact of Covid-19.

Day Two

We began the second day with a Keynote session from Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governance Association (NGA) whose session was on “A Return to the Strategic and Generative.” The general message was that the majority of school leaders felt supported by their governing board with a DfE commissioned NFER survey finding that “89% of school leaders agree that they feel adequately supported (by their governing body)” despite the unprecedented times.  The session also shone a light on relationship building and how this, along with school visits, is important to success within the role. Additionally, advice from this session included ensuring that organisations’ culture and values must permeate and inform strategy in order to “turn a vision into reality.”

The day continued with Claire Mitchell, Leadership & Governance Partner at Berry Education where there was a focus on key strategies for effective monitoring to support governance during times of change, citing that “the individual responsibilities made a collaborative approach easier.” In the other room Dr. Tony Birch and Mark Sanders of Northern Education Trust whose session “Local governance across multiple academies” set out a “work in progress model” explaining the scheme of delegation as well as explaining the ways in which trustees and executives fulfil their responsibilities for leadership and management.

The day was rounded out with a final keynote presentation along with a panel debate. Michael Wardle HMI from Ofsted shared an update on the phased return to inspection with two key themes: Ofsted’s core work during the pandemic along with leadership and the importance of curriculum. Graded inspections will not return until later on in 2021 as well as a suspension of routine inspections with the focus being around monitoring. The plan is to return to routine inspections in a measured way.

To finalise the day there was a panel session with Graham Shaw; Judith Hicks; Hannah Stolton; Julia Millard; Unity Howard and Paul Carvin who reflected on “the good, the bad and the ugly” of being a Governor over the past year and the impact of the pandemic on their current systems. The panel agreed that it had been a relentless year which posed many new challenges. However, the ability to move online has provided an opportunity through boards being able to audit their current working systems in order to make relevant changes. Additionally, there was a common decision that their respective meetings would take place virtually which has allowed for more efficient working. Going forward it was acknowledged that there are many challenges, but also plenty to be optimistic about, and the panel were positive about planning for the future.

As a final word, Chris Zarraga left our delegates with a message of thanks to all of those who are working tirelessly to benefit the future generations as he rounded off another successful virtual conference.  We would like to say a thank you to all the attendees, speakers and the main sponsor Wrigleys Solicitors who have made this event possible. It was great to see all of the interaction all throughout the two days and we look forward to seeing you all in person, hopefully in the not too distant future.