Virtual meetings matter: Lessons from the pandemic

I was delighted to be asked to present a session on governance as part of the Greenshaw Learning Trust’s National Inset Day. Thank you to Ben Parnell for featuring governance in your brilliant programme. My slides from the session and accompanying notes are below.

Slide 2: At the start of 2020 none of us would have imagined that we would be governing in a pandemic. The greatest danger we had to look out for is that governance stopped. Our way of working changed but we had to make sure that we did keep on governing.

Slide 3: Under normal circumstances, we have three core roles. First is ensuring clarity of vision, ethos

Slide 4: and strategic direction.

Slide 5: Secondly, we hold the heads and their teams to account for the performance of pupils, staff and the school

Slide 6: Thirdly to look after the financial health of the school. In order to carry out these roles, we hold governing body meetings with the head and their team, we ask for various reports and we carry out monitoring visits. Our purpose in asking for these reports, holding these meetings and carrying out monitoring visits is to carry out our role of a critical friend.

Slide 7: Although things are very different and difficult now, our core roles are still the same. The greatest danger we must look out for is that we let stop governing. Our way of working has changed but we must make sure that we keep on governing. Governors may feel, for example, that strategic thinking could be put on the back burner now, but we need to remember that our schools and communities have endured and lived through hardships which a year ago were unimaginable. Boards need to be ready to learn lessons from this experience and evaluate why we do what we do. We must ask ourselves if our strategic planning and vision are still fit for purpose and take the long view. We need to be ready to put the lessons learnt during this year into practice.

Slide 8: Let’s now talk about how we perform our core roles. In order to carry out these roles, we hold governing body meetings with the head and their team, we ask for various reports and we carry out monitoring visits. Our purpose in asking for these reports, holding these meetings and carrying out monitoring visits is to act as a critical friend. The way we work has changed in the pandemic. Where things have become difficult, we have also had opportunities to evaluate how we work. The pandemic has taught us some valuable lessons and I will be sharing some tips to improve the way governors and trustees work and carry out the business of governance in the future. The most striking change has been in the way we hold meetings. Meetings in person had to be abandoned as safety concerns are paramount. Some boards may have had the occasional online meeting before the pandemic. Most of the time this was to allow someone to dial in who could not attend in person.

Slide 9: Now, we have had to have everyone dial in. This meant that we had to quickly find suitable platforms and come to grips with technology. Some boards found this relatively easy, others took some time to get used to this new style of working. I think virtual meetings are here to stay. In time, I think boards will use a blended approach, meeting virtually as well as online and this will be a good thing. Holding meetings online has had some benefits too.

Slide 10: Governors have reported that time keeping and attendance at meetings has improved

Slide 11: As have the discussions which have become more focused. Really long meetings are very rare now as sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time is not the easiest of things to do. Hopefully, good time keeping, and focused discussions will carry on even after things return to normal.

Slide 12: So, my first tip would be look at your agendas in order to streamline your meetings. Can they be trimmed down, so you focus on the really important issues? Review the papers you send out before the meeting. If there is something which is being circulated for information only then mark it as that and don’t spend time on it at the meeting. Another good tip is to mark items on the agenda as For debate, For decision etc. This will help focus everyone’s attention to what needs to be done.

Slide 13: If we will continue having online meetings then there are some questions we should be asking ourselves if we are to get the maximum benefit out of online meetings. Questions such as

  • Is the online format getting in the way the board operates? Are board members able to ask challenging questions in the same way as before?
  • Is the online format off putting for some or is everyone able to contribute to the discussion and be heard?
  • Are all our governors able to access online meetings? Does everyone have the required technology? Does anyone need help in getting set up and navigating their way around the platform?
  • Are we happy with the online platform we have chosen and are we using all its functions effectively?

Slide 14: One of the ways we perform our role is by carrying out monitoring visits. Again, the pandemic has meant that we have not been able to go into schools for these monitoring visits. Some of the monitoring has been done remotely.

Slide 15: The safeguarding link governors, for example, have had online meetings with the DSL to assure themselves and the board that the school is doing all that in can to safeguard children. Governors have missed going into schools. It is, for most of us, the most enjoyable part of our role. We love seeing the children and the way the school works. Hopefully, once the pandemic is over, we will be able to resume these visits.

Slide 16: However, till that happens we must ask ourselves

  • During these visits are we focusing on strategic priorities and key policies such as safeguarding and wellbeing?
  • Are we reading papers etc beforehand and preparing for the meeting?
  • Virtual visits should follow the same protocols as the visits when governors go into schools. As in the past, we should arrange online visits these beforehand, This, in fact, is much more important now as school staff will have their hands full much more than normal.
  • It goes without saying that confidentiality must be observed
  • And report of the visit should be circulated like they were being done before

The pandemic has shown us that visits can be done online. This will be especially useful for those governors whose day jobs mean they can’t get into schools during school hours. Visits are an important way of developing relationships with staff and so being able to chat to staff online will be of great value and benefit to these governors.

Slide 17: So, think about whether some of the monitoring visits could continue being virtual visits once the pandemic is behind us.

Slide 18: Governance is about balancing the support and challenge we provide to our school leaders

Slide 19: During the pandemic we have, rightly, tilted the balance and offered more support than challenge. We have reduced our demands on the school for data and papers etc. When the pandemic is over, we should go back to how things were with support and challenge being in balance, but we must evaluate what information we ask the head and school to provide us. We must look at how we work now and what we did pre-COVID.

Slide 20: Is there some information we asked for which created workload for the school but didn’t really help us perform our role? Right at the start, when we went into lockdown many boards were just asking for safeguarding information. I’m not saying that that is all we should ask for going forward. What I am saying is, that we must ask ourselves if the information we receive is worth the increased workload created. We must ask ourselves if the school is spending lots of time putting information together which is basically useless as it won’t help pupils move forward.

Slide 21: We must remind ourselves of what James Pembroke, who knows more about data and assessment than anyone else I know, said “Bad data is NOT better than no data at all”.

Slide 22: So, that’s next tip; before going back to how things were, think whether you need to ask for the same information you used to before COVID, did it create workload for school leaders and whether it was helped you perform your role.

Slide 23: The board is a corporate body and one of the soft skills needed by board members is the ability to be an effective team member. As I said earlier, due to the pandemic the board meetings have had to be held online. One of the problems faced by some boards with this is the fact that it has been difficult to maintain good board dynamics online, especially if you have members who have just joined. It’s hard to pick up body language clues and it’s difficult to build up relationships.

Slide 24: My next tip would be to think how you can help the board work well together.

Slide25: Hopefully, soon we will be able to meet in person again and that will help team members getting to know each other. One simple way to do this would be to gather 15-20 minutes before the meeting starts and use that time to socialise.

Slide 26: In the meantime, you may find it helpful to have an additional online meeting whose sole purpose is to get to know each other.

Slide 27: There are things which we have had to continue doing during the pandemic and recruitment is one such thing. I have sat on an SLT appointment panel and conducted interviews for vacant governor positions. Like everything else, these have had to be conducted online too. The interview process has been shorter, and I think candidates may have felt more at ease, sat at home in front of their computer rather than coming into school an facing a group of strangers across a table.

Slide 28: If you have conducted interviews online I would suggest you evaluate how thy went and are there things you may want to retains when there is no longer the need to hold online interviews.

Slide 29: One of the things my board has had to do online is appraisals. This has worked well too. This time around a trustee asked if they could observe the process. We asked the heads and the CEO who were happy to have the trustee observe. The trustee observing the process kept their camera and mic switched off during the meeting so they wouldn’t distract others. Next year we will have a trustee who has observed the process and knows how this works, who could be part of the appraisal committee. An online observation of the board’s work is something which can be continued even when we start meeting in person.

Slide 30: My next tip would be to think which of the practices you’ve started during online meetings you could continue doing even when meeting in person. In other words, think outside the box.

Slide 31: One other thing which has changed markedly during this year is the access to online CPD. School halls, lecture theatres etc where these events were normally held lie empty while we attend sessions in the comfort of our homes like you may have done. While this is a good thing and allows access to many more people, we must make sure that we are targeting things which will fill gaps in our knowledge and not attending sessions for the sake of attending them.

Slide 32: So, I would like us to allow time for ourselves to reflect upon what we have learnt and see if we can apply it to our practice to improve it.

Slide 33: No presentation on governance will be complete if clerking isn’t mentioned. If boards have worked effectively during the pandemic and have adapted to online working, then a lot of the credit must go the clerks. They have had to quickly switch to clerking online, they have had to support governors adapt to working online, they have kept on top of what the board has had to do, and they have kept the routine governance work going.

Slide 34: My next tip would be to employ good, independent professional clerks and value them and I would urge boards to ensure that they say a huge thank you to their clerks for the way to have risen to the challenge this year has brought.

Slide 35: Wellbeing has been a particular concern of governors during the pandemic. The pandemic has placed a huge amount of pressure on heads and their teams. Governors and especially chairs have been very mindful of this and have ensured they have supported heads and checked on them frequently. Although governors and chairs are generally very good at this, we need to ensure that we continue looking after our heads even after the pandemic is behind us. What is equally important is the wellbeing of governors. Chairs and other governors should remember to check in on their colleagues.

Slide 36: I would like to end my presentation with what is my top tip; look after the wellbeing of heads and your board members and remember to take time out for yourself too. Self-care is as important as caring for others.

37: This was a quick run through of what governance has been like during the pandemic and what lessons can be learnt. Before I end, I would like to say a huge thank you to heads and staff of our schools. You all are awesome. I would also like to thank trustees and governors for the way you all have supported your schools and communities.

1 thought on “Virtual meetings matter: Lessons from the pandemic

  1. Pingback: Eight anniversary matters | Governing Matters

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