On 6th October I attended “Academy Governance: delivering continuous improvement” conference organised by ICSA. This was a well organised conference which gave the attendees a chance to listen to really good and varied presentations. I will write a bit about each of the presentations I attended but will concentrate on the questions which governors should be asking themselves and their schools to bring about school improvement.
The day started with Sir David Carter delivering the keynote address. Sir David’s presentation, as always, was very interesting and useful. He made the point that sustainable school improvement takes time, takes place in stages and needs high quality leadership. It takes around three to five years to turn around a special measures school so we need to stop focusing on quick fixes. Sir David then showed us the graph below.
School A is the real outstanding and H is the weakest school. Getting A to sponsor H cannot be the only answer to the school improvement challenge. D and E are the schools which worry Sir Carter. These schools are sliding but the Regional School Commissioners have no real lever to pick up the phone to them. We need to be able to pick them up and help them before they fall.
Question for governors to ask themselves:
Looking at the above graph, can you plot the position of your school?
Sir Carter then went on to talk about the four stages of improving a school and the key questions for governors in each of these phases.
The four stages of improving a school:
- The Stabilise Phase
- The Repair Phase
- The Improve Phase
- The Sustain Phase
Key questions for governors in the Stabilise Phase:
- How close are we to understanding the precise nature of what needs to be done?
- Are we effective at prioritising the strategies we need to implement?
- Who should we commission to provide the external; support and challenge we need?
- Do we have the right skills and experience on our board to critique the effectiveness of the strategies?
- What data is going to help us provide the challenge that our leaders need?
- How do you understand the short term progress that the school is making without having to wait for the next meeting?
- How are [we] monitoring the cost of improving the school?
- What should we ask the leaders to do less of create capacity in other areas?
- Where are the pockets of stronger practice that we can develop and share?
Key questions for governors in the Repair Phase (these are in addition to the above ones which still apply):
- Is the external support we have commissioned delivering what we need it to?
- Have we got the balance right between supporting and challenging our leaders and staff?
- Are the leaders in the school coping?
- How reliable is the data that the school is sharing with us to demonstrate progress? How do we moderate it?
- Now that the school is improving how are we working with parents and students to learn from their experience?
- Should we commission some external reviews to reassure us that progress is as secure as we are being told it is?
Key questions for governors in the Improve Phase (some of the above will still apply, some won’t be needed):
- Have we articulated the lessons learned so far and are we sharing them more widely?
- Are we getting the balance right between quality assurance and operational improvement?
- How do we make sure we are not institutionally blind to the challenges we still face?
- What are the areas that still need repair?
- As a board of governors do we need to refresh our professional expertise and capacity?
- What is our strategic plan to train and develop our team of governors as we move towards becoming a very good school?
Key questions for governors in the Sustain Phase:
- What are the risks to us reaching a performance plateau and how do we avoid that?
- What capacity do we have to support another school?
- Can we be confident that the areas of expertise we believe we have really are that good?
- Are the strategies we have implemented scalable and replicable?
- Have we allocated key areas for sustainable performance to members of the board (disadvantaged students, able students, collaborative practice)?
Sir Carter then went onto talk about ten things which the best MATs seem to get most of the time. Based on these ten things, below are some questions I think trustees of MATs can ask themselves.
- Are we able to use our workforce as a resource that can be deployed across the MAT to benefit all children?
- How many of the education delivery systems are standardised across the MAT?
- Do we have a trust wide improvement plan which takes into account where each school is on the improvement journey?
- Do we collaborate with other institutions?
- How does the performance management of each school head contribute to the development of the MAT?
- Are we satisfied that our growth strategy for the MAT is not compromising the standard of education children already in our MAT receive?
Sir Carter also pointed out another benefit of being in a MAT. MATs can arrange and deliver greater range of extra-curricular activities for their students. I would like to ask trustees if they are sure that, firstly, the MAT is doing this and secondly, the students are aware of the opportunities available to them and are they utilizing them and benefiting from them?
The next presentation was from Graeme Hornsby who talked about conflicts of interest. The questions which this presentation made me think about are
- Are we aware of our obligations under Charity Law and company Law?
- Are we clear about what constitute conflicts of interest?
- Do we have processes in place for declaring, recording and managing conflicts of interests?
- Do we understand conflict of interest with trustee benefit?
- Do we ensure that if there is a conflict of interest with trustee benefit, then Charity Commission expectation is that withdrawing includes withdrawing from initial and subsequent discussions and decisions of the matter?
- Do we understand conflict of loyalty which can be a grey area?
- Do we take advice when necessary (from our auditors, ESFA, HR)?
- Do we plan ahead when people should withdraw (when preparing the agenda, for example) or do we deal with conflicts during the meeting?
- Is our Register of Interests a live document or is it just updated once a year?
- Do we have a standing item on our agendas when declaration of interests (additions, changes, relevant to that meeting) can be made?
- How do we define senior staff?
- Do we understand what “at cost2 means and do we have processes in place to deal with this? (Graeme advised us not to be afraid of doing at cost transactions if they will benefit our students by always be sure to do them correctly)?
- Do the gatekeepers (trustees, accounting officer, CFO, clerk) understand and carry out their responsibilities?
- Are budget holders and other key staff aware of their responsibilities?
- Do you have induction programmes in place for new members?
- How robust are your internal auditing systems?
- Who keeps up to date with all the legal requirements?
- Who updates policies, procedures and internal controls?
- Is there consistency across the MAT?
- Is there clarity and consistency in local governance systems?
Stephen Morales, Chief Executive NASBM spoke next and talked about school funding. The questions he posed were
- Are you able to quite, on demand, your contact ratios and in particular those of your leadership team?
- Do you know the cost of your leadership team as a % of your overall budget?
- Do you know your back office costs as a % of your overall budget?
- Is internal communication fully automated?
- Have all your major contracts been reviewed and retendered in the last 3 years?
- Do you have in place a 3-year sustainable budget plan?
- Do you have firm strategic plans for your reserves?
- What formal collaborations have you put in place to achieve economies of scale?
- Journey to CEO is massive. It’s not a one week residential! Same true for trustees too. What training is available to them?
How well do you know your organisation? Stephen showed us this capacity audit tool which can be RAG rated to produce a heat map to identify weak/strong area
Next up was Dr Kate Chatwal who spoke about maximising the impact of the Board. She explained the journey her trust, STEP Academy Trust, has been on. Based on her presentation these are the questions we could be asking ourselves.
Which of the six features of impactful boards given below can we say we share?
- Do we focus on the things that really matter?
- Do we know what success looks like?
- Do we have access to reliable data?
- Do we triangulate?
- Do we stay strategic but dig deep when needed?
- Are we accountable for our own performance?
- Are we sure that joining a MAT has resulted/will result in more than the sum of the parts?
- Do you have the same assessment systems across the MAT as trustees will not be able to compare schools to work out where the need is the greatest?
- Are your local governors acting as the board’s eyes and ears?
- D your local governors know your trustees? Are there lines of communication between the two?
- Do trustees understand that governance at the MAT trust board level is very different to governing a single school?
- What are your governance KPIs?
Governance is about asking/answering key questions about resources, vision, strategy, data & feedback. How would you answer these questions?
Some questions which came to my mind listening to the panel (David Gracie, Director at KPMG; Brian Lightman, Gen. Sec. of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) from 2010-2016 Michelle Doyle Wildman) debate on stakeholder engagement which was the next session.
- How do you ensure your communicate with your stakeholders in a timely manner?
- How do you engage with students and staff to find out what’s happening on the ground?
- Do you consider the impact your decisions will have on your stakeholders?
- Is your culture one of proactive engagement?
- Are you outward looking?
- Are you aware that the school is a massive resource for the community?
- Do you develop and invest in relationships with stakeholders so they can be your allies?
We were also treated to a presentation from Michael Sherridan, Ofsted’s Regional Director for London who started off with some myth busting (such as it’s not true that only the Chair meets with the inspectors, it’s also a myth that only governors who me t the inspectors are told about the judgement. All should be told (with the caveat that it is confidential until is it officially released). He told us that governance has changed a great deal since the days when he was a head and challenges are now quite different. Michael then listed some challenges which I have changed into questions you can ask your fellow governors.
- Do you know HOW to hold your leaders to account?
- Do you understand your strategic role?
- Do you know how governors and teachers can work together?
- Being a volunteer, how do you manage your workload?
- Do you keep up to date with educational changes, legal responsibilities and inspection frameworks?
- How do you ensure that your board has the right skills and knowledge?
- How do you recruit governors with the required skills?
- Do you know how and where to access good and support when you need it?
Other questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have a good induction programme in place for new governors?
- Do governors have access to regular refresher training?
A few words about clerking:
As we know a good clerk is essential for good governance. It was good to see clerking was highlighted during the day.
Sir David Carter said that Chair, Vice Chair and Clerk are the holy trinity as far as improving governance is concerned.
Graeme Hornsby said there is a great potential to develop clerking at the local level. The going rate for clerks is not very good. This needs to be a professional post with matching remuneration.
Mike Sheridan talked about how a good, professional clerk can support governors to
- Be well organised and remain strategic
- Review policies
- Access accurate minutes and receive papers in time
- Be aware of planned governance activities
- Attend training
- Report back to committees /full board
Mike said that governors should look after their clerk because a good, professional clerk is
- Outward facing
- Access training
- Are members of professional organizations
- Use information services
- Is worth their weight in gold!
My governance duties meant that I missed the remaining sessions as I had to leave to attend a meeting. I am grateful to ICSA for outing on such a good conference. I look forward to attending similar ones in the future.
My Storify of the tweets from the conference can be read here.