How governors and trustees can help schools make sense of the future

Sir David Carter

Sir David Carter

Executive Director, System Leadership

When we started the academic year, nobody had any idea how teachers, leaders, governors and trustees were going to be tested. Schools and trusts have responded incredibly to a set of unprecedented circumstances; re-purposing their offer to their local community in record time, to help keep pupils safe and learning.

But as we enter the second month of school closures as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, it is worth thinking about what we need to do next. So many blogs and reports that I have read over the past few weeks have looked at the challenges from the perspective of school leaders and rightly so. But, I thought it was time to talk directly to those colleagues who govern and oversee the work of schools and academy trusts.

Tiffany Beck is a trustee of the Maritime Academy Trust, and a colleague who has supported me to deliver Ambition Institute’s Trust Diagnostic. Back in March, Maritime was in the fortunate position of having recently updated their IT systems and already having discussions on what distance learning could look like. While huge challenges remained when the pandemic struck, they were better placed than most to cope with the school closures.

But Tiffany has still had sleepless nights, with the wellbeing of pupils and staff, in particular vulnerable pupils and her senior management teams, at the forefront of her mind. It's the same for every single school and trust in the country.

In June 2018, I became a trustee at Centrepoint, the charity dedicated to ending youth homelessness. In this role, I have seen how hard it is to manage a social care service at the moment.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with the board and the executive team to thrash out the beginnings of a planning template for the next 24 months.

We’ve been using a recently-published guide by management consultancy McKinsey. It was issued to their staff to help shape their thinking during the pandemic. It talks of "five horizons" – the five phases of the pandemic and its aftermath – which I believe can be applied just as helpfully to education as to business.

Here are my reflections.

Randal Cremer_three leaders talking2

Phase 1: Resolve

I would summarise this as the phase we experienced in March when the lockdown was first enforced.

In this phase, schools were confronted with challenges that they had to resolve far quicker than usual. The challenges are still not completely resolved, but have focused upon some core problems.

How to plan for the children of key workers who need to attend school? How many children would attend at the start and over the coming weeks? How would we feed the most vulnerable children and families? How can we ensure children have access to resources so that they can continue to learn at home?

Reflecting on this first phase, boards could ask themselves:

  • How well did we respond to this challenge? What did we do well? What did we find difficult?
  • How well did the board work with school/ trust leaders to ensure that they had the support and guidance that they needed?
  • Are we better equipped now to deal with a national crisis than we were three months ago?
  • What learning should we take from this experience into our future risk planning?

Phase 2: Resilience

I would summarise this as the phase we are in at the moment: it started in April and could last until July or August this year.

After the immediate responses to the phase one challenges, schools have been focusing on how they sustain and fund the support strategies that they have put in place. Governors and trustees have had to consider the financial implications of resolving these challenges, sometimes ahead of official advice and financial commitments from central government. They have also had to turn their attention to ensuring that what has been put in place is of sufficient quality.

Questions for governors and trustees to consider in this phase:

  • How well are the trust and school leaders coping? Are they taking care of themselves as well as the people they are leading?
  • What is the most impressive quality that we have seen in our leaders? What are the areas that they are finding most challenging?
  • How effective are the solutions that the school or trust has put in place to manage the attendance of children in schools, feeding vulnerable families and ensuring that resources for children to learn at home are good enough?
  • What weaknesses in the school or trust have been exposed? Do vulnerable families have access to Wi-Fi and hardware to continue with their learning, for example?

Randal Cremer_children on climbing wall

Phase 3: Return

I would summarise this as the phase that, following recent government announcements on the phased re-opening of schools in England, will begin in June.

In many ways, I think this is the hardest phase for governors and trustees to manage. For a start, return timelines will be different across the system, and there are a number of variables that could influence the strategy. But boards will need to get ahead of the curve and start to consider what the key issues will be.

Questions for governors and trustees to consider in this phase include:

  • How do we know if it will be safe for adults and children to come together when social distancing will be very difficult?
  • What commitment will we make to staff that they will be safe when they return to work?
  • How will we ensure that parents who decide not to allow their children to return to school in the short term are not left behind and isolated?
  • How will we support staff and children who have experienced bereavement and need help?
  • What access will we have as a school/trust to testing and tracking to make a risk assessment of our preparedness for a phased or full return?
  • If the return is to be phased, which children will or should return first?
  • How do we support children and staff to be re-inducted to school after being out of the classroom for the longest period of time since World War II?
  • What will be our catch-up strategy for all children – but especially those who have already found learning difficult?

Phase 4: Re-imagination

This phase is less easy to define in terms of start and end dates; but, fundamentally, I believe it will last for the whole of the 2020/21 academic year.

Out of every crisis comes an eventual sense of optimism, and this is the phase where boards and leaders will start to think about what McKinsey describe as creating the “next normal”. Whilst I suspect that we are not going to see a complete transformation of how we run schools, I do think that we will not return to the same state as before. Change will happen and we will need boards to be innovative, strategic, and, above all, focused on the right things for their school or trust.

The questions to consider in this phase include:

  • Which strategies that have been put in place to manage the crisis are worthy of becoming part of the way we work from this point onwards?
  • What are the implications for the financial strategy of the school/trust? Will the board need to provide additional resources from reserves to fund strategies such as a catch-up programme?
  • Will staff in the trust want the board to consider new ways of flexible working?
  • Will parents who have been supervising and supporting their children to learn from home demand more than a parent consultation evening and an annual report with standardised comments?
  • Should home learning become a key part of our curriculum design across the trust?

"Change will happen and we will need boards to be innovative, strategic, and, above all, focused on the right things for their school or trust."

Phase 5: Reform

I would summarise this as the phase that is likely to start in September 2021 and continue for some time afterwards. This will include the codification and implementation by boards of the new practices that have evolved in the school or trust, and written into new policies and strategies. It is also the point that the government may consider legislation for the sector that defines new ways of funding and overseeing the school system.

For boards, the challenge will be to reflect on their current operating model and decide how it needs to shift to include new operational practices. Managing this change will come at a time when schools and trusts are just beginning to return to a sense of order. Judging the moment to introduce change without creating a sense of anxiety and pressure will be critical.

The questions that trustees and governors will need to consider in this phase are:

  • How do we identify those strategies that were introduced as a short-term solution that should now be codified into the vision and policies of the trust?
  • How will we manage the accountability relationships, so that leaders feel supported as well as challenged to manage the new context in which they are leading?
  • Can we re-design our three-to-five year financial strategy? What will our response be to the DfE needing to reduce the allocation of budgets to schools to make a contribution to repaying the debt created by the coronavirus?
  • How do the networks that trustees and leaders participate in provide additional evidence to the board about the national momentum for change?

While there are many uncertainties, this five-phase model should offer schools some insight into how to prepare for the future.

Along with the McKinsey framework, I was also drawn to this recent article on how Denmark have approached the re-opening of schools, after a five-week lockdown. Many of the suggestions I have made within the five phases above are a reality for leaders in Denmark. Whilst we have our own challenges to resolve in the UK, looking at schools in an international context who are coming out the other side of this will give us all food for thought.

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