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Remote governance - the good, the bad, the future?

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I have been a governor for 11 years now and have been through all sorts of situations I might not have been expecting, but I could never have imagined a complete switch to remote governance. Previous pilot programmes to supply governors to schools “remotely”, or even own attempts to phone into governing board meetings, had been viewed with suspicion and too far ahead of their time. For as long as it has been in existence, school governance has rested on lukewarm tea, a plate of (largely ignored in my experience) biscuits and everyone sitting more or less comfortably on plastic chairs in the same room at school. 

But COVID-19 has ripped up this long-established blueprint, so here are my thoughts after 9 months of being a remote governor. 

The good

I should start by saying we have a small but perfectly formed governing body and, contrary to having a governance go-slow, we had quite a lot of extraordinary business to attend to this year. Scheduling in more frequent meetings and pre-meetings was certainly a lot easier than would have been the case if we were meeting face-to-face. Holding these meetings remotely has made it easier for governors to attend and also to get back to the day job with a couple of clicks when they were done, rather than the additional school and back journey times derailing their other plans for the day. 

At my school, the meetings have been a lot more pacey. Partly thanks to COVID focussing minds and agendas, and inputs are even more to the point. I think the remote meeting format really forces people to keep their comments relevant, almost as if having to press “unmute” gives you that extra split second to really think about how to make your contribution valuable. 

We decided some years ago to move all Full Governing Board and Committee meetings to first thing in the morning on a Tuesday. It works much better for the staff team, who are in school and raring to go at that time, and worked better for the majority of governors. We are all fresher and generally have other obligations when the meeting is over to keep us to time. As opposed to holding meetings tired, at the end of the working day, when we have all but given up on the thought of doing anything else that day. I wonder if remote governance might have made other boards get a bit more creative about when they meet? 

The bad

I miss schools! Does anyone else? Being in the building, seeing members of staff, meeting pupils and parents and even little things like the smell and the children’s work on the walls. I miss it all. I found myself getting lyrical at the end of chairing an outcomes committee meeting the other week because just hearing about the children’s attitudes and achievements cheered me up no-end on another grey day at home in front of my laptop. It was like I could feel sunshine radiating out of the screen! I know of course why we can’t go in, but I will be banging on the door as soon as it is safe to return.

Remote monitoring visits are also not quite the same. I had a good and thorough report from the relevant SLT, checked the Single Central Record etc. but in these strange times focussing on compliance feels like the right thing to do. Recognising lines of inquiry around school development priorities might have to wait until we all have a bit more headspace. 

I also miss my governance colleagues - we still manage to have a bit of fun, observe each other’s life events (and of course living rooms) but it is hard to get “chat” going in a GoogleMeet. The minutes before the meeting kicks off in earnest usually involve one person making the same joke 7 times over, as each new person joins the call. 

The future? 

I have speculated a lot with guests from our KeyVoices podcast about the future of remote governance. While it remains our only option, for now, it does seem that most people would want to retain it, in at least some form, longer-term. Even the technophobes among us are successfully working online and appreciating some of the benefits. The next stage is to work out how to really do remote governance as effectively as possible. Alternating face-to-face and remote meetings seems to be the most likely model for the future. I am optimistic that carrying on a hybrid model might enable us as a sector to recruit and retain an even more diverse and talented group of volunteers, who now see more easily how this vitally important role can slot into their life. 

For governance professionals who want to learn more about effective remote governance in trusts, you can register here to attend our free webinar on 1 December at 12pm.  

If you are reading this and are not already a governor, you can apply to become one via Governors for Schools.  

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