Building bridges

    Published: 24 March 2021

    This is our team’s 10th blog, the first of which we published back in April of last year to support the work of boards as they faced the unique challenges thrown up by the pandemic. Clearly we are not out of the other side yet. There is much work still being done to keep our school communities safe, but as we gradually emerge from the strictures of lockdown, we will continue to use these blogs on a half-termly cycle to signpost good practice and support.  We will also engage in topical discussion for governors across our county and beyond.

    Children’s Commissioner for England

    Today the new Children’s Commissioner, former headteacher Dame Rachel de Souza, has started in her role with a commitment to a once-in-a-generation review of how children’s lives might be improved and an intention to create a 10 year plan, taking its spirit from the 1942 Beveridge report. The review will consider the impact of the estimated 840 million lost days of in-person learning that have disrupted the learning of school pupils in England alone, and as we know the disproportionate impact on our most disadvantaged pupils. On a national level this is commendable.  As boards, we can take our cue from this and consider how best to review the impact within our own setting and to then see what can be put in place to support those most affected pupils. A survey of pupils is clearly a good starting point, and should cover their experience of learning during lockdown.  

    The following list offers some points to consider:

    • what worked well and what didn’t?
    • how do pupils feel about the return to school and face-to-face learning?
    • how did they feel supported by the school during lockdown
    • did they manage to keep in touch with friends?
    • has rekindling those friendships been straightforward?

    I think we recognise there will be no quick fixes.  We have 14 years of impacted cohorts that will be working their way through our schools, some for at least the next 10+ years. As with the national plan, boards will need to give thought to how they will monitor their school’s work to support this pandemic-impacted generation for many years to come. Anne Longfield, the departing Children’s Commissioner, said that ‘governments do not see children as they fall through the gaps’.  Political points aside, I am not sure many see this, but as governors we need to make sure our schools, who are best placed to catch these children, are doing their utmost to identify and support them.

    Education recovery commissioner

    Whilst we are talking commissioners, it’s worth noting the broadly welcomed appointment of Sir Kevan Collins to the above position. His remit is to ensure the government catch-up programmes and funding are targeted at those who have lost out most during the pandemic. With upwards of £1.7 billion earmarked for initiatives ranging from the National Tutoring Programme to summer schools, there is the clear need for someone to focus on ensuring the support gets to where it’s needed the most. Again, for boards, you will need to be challenging as to what your school is doing to access these funds: what will the funds be spent on and most importantly (I know you know this!) what the impact has been. He states that schools and governors should focus on what has been learned, rather than lost learning, and recommends a focus on education, not gimmicks. Controversially, there has also been a suggestion to  consider longer school days and more contact time. He recognises that this all requires funding and although he says the support package is a ‘good start’, it is not ‘sufficient’ for the longer term work of recovery – let’s watch this space!

    Things to consider:

    • attendance – now schools are fully reopen we need to be looking at where the gaps were in attendance during lockdown and see if they are closing as pupils return. What support does the school have in place to support those historic poor attenders? Are new trends or patterns  emerging of unexpected low attendance? The DfE tweeted on the 16th March that 99.9% of schools are now fully open with 94% of primary pupils and 89% of secondary students attending – how does your school compare?
    • the latest DfE Governance guidance was published on March 1st to support GB’s as their schools reopened.  Although brief, it touches on a number of areas that often crop up in calls to our helpdesk so should be a useful read DfE Governance update
    • Schools Week published a very supportive article about what we have learned from the reopening guidance, have a look through and consider your own schools response. 13 things we learned
    • stop press – Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, has confirmed that full school inspections will now resume in the autumn term – so if you have been in the Ofsted window for the past year, then it would be prudent to start preparing during the summer term for a possible inspection later in the year.
    • SATs, GCSEs & A-Levels are all cancelled for summer 21. This would appear to be the finally agreed position and as boards we need to understand, especially in secondary schools, how this will work in practice. A Headteacher was quoted in the media about needing to manage ‘pointy elbowed’ parents seeking to influence their child’s teacher with regard to the grades they will submit.  I think we all recognise that this is a risk and need to ensure our schools do all they can to minimise this behaviour. Looking ahead, more questions are being raised about Progress and Attainment 8 scores, and how these can restart without the benchmark evidence of SATs from primary schools for another year ,and yet we are reassured that the return to SATs and GCSE’s will happen next year. Ofqual have launched a further stakeholder consultation on the arrangements for the autumn 2021 exam series Ofqual consultation

    Board diversity

    It’s eight months on from when we first started our discussions within HfL on the response to Black Lives Matter and, together with many other organisations, I think we have all come a long way in our understanding and thinking around this challenge to improve the recruitment of governors from minority backgrounds. The NGA have a useful link  to their campaigning efforts which is a very informative read: Everyone on Board. You may also find this  link to a short animation by the Royal Society on unconscious bias (UB) useful Unconscious Bias. This could easily be shared at your next board meeting to begin a discussion on this subject which, if followed up with the suggestion to read the NGA article, could be just the thing to start a conversation. As the video says, we cannot cure UB, it is hardwired into our conscience, but if we are self-aware of UB, we can begin to address it.

    Board meetings

    If, like the boards I sit on, you are beginning to discuss how to hold meetings and visits as lockdown eases, I think, as I have said before, we should avoid a rush to returning to how we did things before March last year. Options range from continuing to meet remotely, a hybrid approach of a mix of remote and face to face meetings, through to a return to all face-to-face meetings. Similarly, with governor in-school visits, should the previous options be considered as well? If I were to offer an opinion, it would be the hybrid model, with a face-to-face board meeting to start the year in September, returning to remote for the winter/ early Spring term meetings, and a mix for late Spring and Summer. The work life balance gains for governors and staff are clear with remote meetings, especially when daylight is short and commutes are unpredictable. The meeting ends, you are home and able to eat or relax straight away, which is a clear win for remote. To hold the occasional face-to-face meeting when the education year begins, and in summer when a tour of the school and grounds is practical, has clear benefits, otherwise do you really need to be in a (usually) cold classroom until late evening? In February, we surveyed 300 Herts Chairs and 60% said they had 1-3 vacancies on their board. A hybrid approach, if well marketed, could unlock the recruitment door to potential governors, where commuting or childcare are a blocker, with this model.

    So back to bridges! We have the government attempting to bridge the funding gap required to support all those pupils disadvantaged by the pandemic.   We also have commissioners brought in to build more specific bridges for children to help with their education and life chances.  Schools are having to build and repair bridges to create a smooth pathway back for both staff and pupils to life in school and also to repair fragile bridges with parents who have been home schooling in the most difficult circumstances on and off for nearly a year.  That’s a lot of bridges! As governors, we need to be checking they are in place for our own schools and to ensure they bring the much-needed financial relief, support and guidance for our schools. One final bridge of our own was our recent Herts Governor Conference where the theme was ‘Bridging the Gap’ and a huge thanks to the many 100’s of governors who engaged with the webinars and conference.

    Our work as governors may go unrecognised by the wider public, but please be proud of what you do.  Our schools are at best fragile eco systems that need our care and attention to help them get through the remaining months of this pandemic and beyond – the future success of this journey will, in part, be due to your unwavering dedication and commitment as a school governor.

    The Governance team are here to support you, please use the following contact details:

    HfL Governance Helpdesk

    Phone: 01438 544487 (Mon-Fri 9-5p.m)



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