Need to know: How Covid affected school governors’ work

Constant government guidance, longer hours and the challenges of working remotely all changed how school governance functioned during the pandemic

Catherine Lough

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It is well established that the Covid pandemic has caused major disruption and change across schools over the past 18 months.

But a report published today has shed new light on how the coronavirus crisis has impacted on the work of school governors. 

The findings, published by the Department for Education, are based on small-scale research of case studies carried out between December 2020 and January 2021 during the height of the crisis. 

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Here are its key findings:

Virtual meetings have less nuanced discussion

School governors reported that governing board and committee meetings taking place online improved attendance but one local governing body chair reported that virtual meetings were “not as intuitive as sitting down face to face”.

Another chair commented: “Virtual meetings miss the soft side of human interaction. Online, it is difficult to encourage governors to interact. Do they feel included? Do they ‘get it’?”

Some clerks also said it was harder to keep attendees on task in a virtual meeting, without the opportunity to “nudge” someone to pay attention or glance at them.

But attendance improved as attendees did not have to drive to meetings, or could participate if they were shielding or self-isolating. Many interviewees felt that meetings ran on time better and were more focused.

Virtual meetings also made it easier for school improvement experts or subject specialists to drop in on a meeting for a short amount of time.

Forming a long-term strategy was more difficult during Covid

Governors in the study reported that their roles and responsibilities remained unchanged in the pandemic, and that operational decisions were still made by schools and trusts.

However, some governors feared that a lack of face-to-face discussion made it difficult to take long-term decisions.

“Although some interviewees said they were able to continue taking a strategic approach, there was concern about the impact that dealing with the current fast-changing situation, and lack of face-to-face discussion and visibility in school, were having on taking a long-term strategic view,” the report says.

“There were a number of observations that strategy meetings were unmanageable online and meeting physically was necessary for developing strategy, in particular, and it was likely that, as soon as the Covid-19 restrictions allowed, these meetings would reconvene as face to face,” it adds.

Risk assessments were updated more frequently and governors worked more hours

Perhaps unsurprisingly, risk assessments were updated more frequently during the pandemic.

The report also notes that “the majority of interviewees believed they were working more hours than before the pandemic, largely due to keeping up to date with information on the changing Covid-19 situation, wanting to support the executive leader and school, and ensuring that policies and procedures were updated”.

One chair explained: “I am definitely working more hours, as a day does not go by when I am not interacting with the school.

“The main reason is to make sure the school and the head are feeling supported. Schools are feeling isolated and I want to support.”

A clerk described how “senior governors (ie, the holy trinity of the safeguarding governor, the chair and the vice-chair) have seen their work rate rise” because of safeguarding concerns, as so many children were missing from school and were hard to reach.

One governor and one trustee among the case studies had resigned since the pandemic because of the increasing demands of their day-time job.

Governance in person stopped

Governors also reported that they had to rely more on school reporting when it came to recruitment, safeguarding and exclusions, and that it was harder to “triangulate” this with visits in person to their schools.

“Lack of face-to-face discussion was seen to be a limiting factor on effectiveness,” the report says.

One chair, in the context of recruitment without face-to-face discussion, said: “Time will tell if it is effective.” 

Another governor commented that “it is difficult to show concern and empathy when the attendees of exclusion panels cannot see your body language”.

More information to process with ‘constant government guidance’

Interviewees also said that they were spending more time on processing information than usual, while one chair said that constant government guidance had “required flexibility to accommodate the changes”.

A clerk explained that, in a usual year, governing boards can anticipate which documents are released and at what time of year, but that during the pandemic “there had been a rolling amount of information on top of the normal level”.

She described information  as “coming out almost daily at one point”.

“I have had to do a hell of a lot more reading than normal. I will read everything that comes in because if I don’t understand it, how can I minute it?” she added.

Governors need more training to challenge leaders

In one case study, the executive leader said that the pandemic had “put the spotlight” on the fact that the governors were not supporting and challenging as they should be.

“He felt the pandemic had highlighted the need for the governors to undergo more training as he was finding it ‘frustrating’ that they were not holding him to account, and this had been very apparent during the pandemic, as governors rarely asked any questions during board meetings,” the report says.

In another case study, the executive leader felt that Covid-19 may have disrupted normal governors’ training, as they had not accessed as much as they would have.

He said that “maybe the long-term consequences of all this is that our governors may be a little less well trained”.

“We have had no whole-governors’ training sessions since the pandemic and we would normally have had some,” he added.

Monitoring exam performance could be more difficult after Covid

Some of the exam data at schools in their area were considered by governors to be “concerningly different” from results in previous years, with one interviewee asking: “What kind of validity can we put on them [results]?”

Another interviewee reflected that educational performance monitoring will be “challenging in the future and their governing board will need to consider how to scrutinise the data effectively and with appropriate caveats”, the report says.

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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