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EFFECTIVE CHAIRS – Spring 2021
The start of a new year against a continuing background of COVID-19.
It is unlikely that many of us involved with education will have been able to have a complete break this Christmas as the news and updates around education have been a constant feature wherever we look. From the time schools started their last week of the autumn term to the start of the first week of this term over 100 COVID-19 related updates have come from government. Many are updating existing guidance, but new initiatives around schools’ response to the pandemic were included, so for schools trying to stay up to date it is nothing short of a nightmare. The good news for our members is that DAG sorts through these notifications and produces a regular weekly COVID-19 update featuring the most up to date versions of the guidance, see our most recent COVID-19 Update. Our regular news articles each week recognise that governors are volunteers and have limited time, DAG therefore provides concise, up to date articles from a national and local perspective.
A question for you to consider: Do you encourage all your governors to register with DAG?
The aim of the government was to have all pupils back in school, but as the number of COVID-19 cases increases, we are now in a full lockdown again with guidance issued on 7th January. Hopefully every school will have planned for the possibility of a local or national lockdown and be clear about how they will ensure continuity of education. Whilst the decisions concerning tiers and lockdowns are taken on our behalf, we still need to ensure that continuity of education is a key area of focus for the work of the board. During COVID-19 schools still have a responsibility to ensure that they deliver a rich and engaging learning experience for all and this approach to the curriculum applies to education delivered in school and remotely. The government expects schools to provide remote education as a planned and well-sequenced curriculum so that knowledge and skills are built incrementally, with a good level of clarity about what is intended to be taught and practised in each subject. Remote Education Good Practice guidance was issued last term, see our recent article for a summary of this guidance ‘Remote education expectations’.
We have all been here before, but the expectations have risen each time remote learning is deployed. The Education Secretary in his statement to the house on 6th January reminded schools that the DfE has set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education and that this is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be ‘enforced’ by Ofsted. The DfE expect schools to provide between three and five teaching hours a day, depending on a child’s age. If parents feel their child’s school is not providing suitable remote education, he advised them that they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher and failing that, report the matter to Ofsted. Ofsted will inspect schools – of any grade – where it has serious concerns about the quality of remote education being provided. See our recent article: Ofsted Visits Spring 2021-updated for a summary of where we are at present with Ofsted inspections.
Many boards were just engaging with the assessment of pupils within their schools following the last lockdown and noting which groups were adversely impacted, this knowledge will be essential to support pupils during this lockdown.
Boards to consider: Does their school provision meets the remote education guidance issued around content, duration and access and are pupils and staff well supported to ensure remote education is effective?
Boards will hopefully be using what they learned from the first lockdown to inform their approach now and be considering the support that their staff, pupils and families will require. Discussions will continue during this lockdown around prioritising provision for pupils that need extra support or specific access and addressing the wellbeing of these groups.
The DfE reminds us that governing boards and school leaders should have regard to staff (including the headteacher) work-life balance and wellbeing. Schools should ensure they have explained to all staff the measures they are proposing putting in place and involve all staff in that process. All employers have a duty of care to their employees and this extends to their mental health. Schools already have mechanisms to support staff wellbeing and these will be particularly important, as some staff may be particularly anxious about attending school. DfE is providing additional support for both pupil and staff wellbeing in the current situation. Information about the extra mental health support for pupils and teachers and Wellbeing for Education return programme is available. The Education Support Partnership provides a free helpline for school staff and targeted support for mental health and wellbeing.
Boards to consider: How is communication with parents and pupils being handled and how are lessons learned from the first lockdown supporting better engagement now? How are these approaches benefitting particular groups of pupils and what further measures may be necessary?
The NGA advise that boards “…should continue to show support to senior leaders in proportionate fashion, offering guidance when necessary, without adding to the immense pressure of the situation”. We are all very familiar with this advice as it shaped our governance response during the first lockdown. However at that time we were all working out how to cope with a very new way of working and as we grappled with virtual governance we had no choice but to concentrate on the big decisions, with urgent matters that required full board approval taking priority, for many of us it was just business critical decisions. Now we are all familiar with virtual governance many boards have returned to meeting content that reflects more closely the former annual cycle. As we go into this full lockdown, it will in the main fall to chairs to decide what goes on the agenda over the rest of this term.
Boards to consider: Can we effectively do ‘full governance’ virtually?
We all like to think that we instinctively know what important business is and what it isn’t. So much has been turned upside down we will need to constantly re-assess and staying up to date will help us to do this and to respond to short notice changes as quickly as possible.
A question for you to consider: Are your governors staying up to date, or are they leaving it to you?
4.Safeguarding and risk management
As the lockdown continues, we will need to ensure that our schools have updated safeguarding measures including policies to reflect the day to day running of the school including remote education. Boards will also need to ensure staff are briefed on any changes that take place and that changes to policies and procedures are communicated via the website to other stakeholders. Schools will have submitted their safeguarding audit to the local authority at the end of last term and any issues that were identified will have been notified to the board. Safeguarding is the highest priority and boards will be asking about concerns emerging from attendance data, internal welfare pastoral systems and seeking assurance that any control measures that have been implemented are working.
Devon County Council have been updating their risk assessment forms to reflect changes to both national and local contexts. Staff have recently been encouraged to raise concerns about the safety of their working environment and with the return of ‘shielding’ boards will need to be reassured that risk assessments take this into account and control measures have been updated.
Boards to consider: When was your latest risk assessment updated and are all governors aware of the latest changes to risk assessments in their school or schools?
5: Data Control:
Recognising that schools and trusts are data controllers, the speed with which guidance is changing and then changing again is eye watering and boards may need to consider the following areas relating to data handling:
Board to consider: Is the governor with GDPR responsibility working with the DPO to reassure the board that necessary measures are in place?
The NGA has recently reported that approximately 5,000 new chairs are needed every year for the state school system. Their advice following recent discussions with chairs falls into six main categories:
DAG are also very much aware of how difficult the role of chair can be especially during a pandemic. DAG can help, and to support Devon chairs more, we are launching our DAG Community Network for Chairs to provide a forum each half term for chairs from across the county to join an interactive hour-long session to discuss the latest issues affecting governance in 2021. Each forum will have a theme and will be facilitated by DAG board members with considerable chairing experience. The first forum will be held on Monday 8th February at 6pm and will consider Governance in 2021 – Remaining Resilient. Members are asked to register in advance via [email protected]
Whilst it would be great to ditch ‘chairs action’ it is a useful tool in an emergency. However, boards have now developed their virtual governance to ensure it is responsive and agile and in most cases this approach should remove the need for the chair to have to take decisions on their own.
Questions for you to consider: Are you doing everything you can to make your chair role manageable for you and for the person who takes over from you? Do you know how other chairs approach their role?
It is the term when boards will be setting their budgets and looking ahead five years.
High Needs Block: In Devon, the High Needs Block that funds SEND support is still overspent. This is the same in probably every local authority in the country, but as the number of children requiring SEND support increases and the inevitability that some of those high needs places will need to be funded in the private sector at considerable cost, it is making it impossible for Devon to balance its budget. Devon County Council had asked schools during the autumn 2020 schools finance consultation to approve transfer of funds from the Schools block to High Needs to be used to implement the recommendations from their SEND 100 project report; the request was turned down by schools.
National Funding Formula (NFF): The government had decided that the full implementation of the NFF would be moved forward to 2021/2022, in light of the need to focus efforts on meeting the challenges of COVID-19 they have decided not to change local authorities’ flexibility over the distribution of school funding in 2021-22 and full implementation will have to wait. The government will put forward proposals to move to a ‘hard’ NFF in future, which will determine schools’ budgets directly, rather than through local formulae set interpedently by each local authority. They plan to consult wider with local authorities, schools and others to make this transition. Funding from the teachers’ pay grant and the teachers’ pension employer contribution grant, including the supplementary fund, has been added to schools’ NFF allocations from 2021-22. Devon is still sitting at the bottom of the list of worst funded local authorities for education and irrespective of all of the school funding promises, the difficulties remain. So, the f40 campaign continues (40 worst funded local authorities for education) to raise awareness and hopefully correct this iniquity, with Councillor McInnes from Devon County Council as the chair of the group. We will keep you updated as to the progress.
Impact of COVID-19 on school budgets:
Analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) into the financial implications of COVID-19 on schools has found that one in four schools may not be able to meet the costs of COVID-19 with 1,500 schools at particular risk of financial hardship.
The Department for Education (DfE) updated their guidance on funding for exceptional coronavirus costs for schools in December. The wording of the reserves section had been updated, but the meaning does not appear to have changed: if a school had reserves and expects to add to these reserves in the financial year, they will not be able to claim. The second claim form window closed on 22 December and was the final opportunity to submit a claim. We wait to see how the guidance will reflect this latest lockdown.
Loss of income is also a factor for many schools and while COVID-19 costs mount, the belief that schools can compensate for loss of income in one area by using reserves or lack of expenditure in other areas is being severely tested. In the case of governor run preschools, before and after school clubs as well as holiday clubs this is particularly difficult as these settings rely on parental income and must succeed or fail as a single accounting line within a school budget as losses cannot be offset from income elsewhere. It is the responsibility of the governing board to monitor the finances of these settings and if a governor run preschool, holiday club, before or after school club is forecasting an end of year deficit position then they should seek advice as soon as possible. Governing boards should know how many pupils they need to breakeven and therefore be monitoring and updating their financial plan to highlight if the setting may struggle financially over the next 3 years. Schools that are concerned should call the Early Years and Childcare Adviser to seek help and support with governor run preschools, holiday clubs and before and after school clubs.
SFVS: Financial accountability measures are still in place and the Schools Financial Value Standard (SFVS) is still a requirement this term for maintained schools. The standard consists of a checklist and a dashboard. The checklist asks questions of governing boards in six areas of resource management. The dashboard shows how a school’s data compares to thresholds on a range of statistics identified by the Department for Education (DfE) as indicators of good resource management and outcomes. It provides explanations of each of the indicators and helps schools to fill in their data and understand the results. Academies should use the school resource management self-assessment tool.
Financial benchmarking: This is also an area that schools tend to look at this term and whilst the publication of 2019/20 LA Maintained School data has been delayed by COVID-19, it should be updated later this term. The link to DfE Schools Financial Benchmarking website is https://schools-financial-benchmarking.service.gov.uk/
Published accountability: School leaders must be able to account for how the latest Coronavirus Catch-up Premium grant is being used to help schools get back on track and teach a normal curriculum as quickly as possible. It is worth having a look at the updated what maintained schools and academies must publish online. Schools in receipt of the coronavirus (COVID-19) catch-up premium grant in academic year 2020 to 2021, will be required to publish details of:
This is added to the accountability information that also needs to be on our school websites on ‘Pupil premium’, ‘Year 7 literacy and numeracy catch-up premium’ and ‘PE and sport premium for primary schools’. The Schools Audit Team note that this is an area that they do look at as part of the routine audits of schools and Ofsted will be taking a look too.
Boards to consider: Does your current cycle of virtual meetings take into account the time needed to consider budget planning for 2021 to 2025?