Board Development Programme Review
At the end of last year, NSN hosted the Board Development Programme – a series of six events with leaders from business and education – which brought together hundreds of Academy Ambassadors to learn, network and develop. In this resource, we reflect on the many lessons we learnt from a range of wonderful speakers.
The Board Development Programme kicked-off with a jam-packed session highlighting the important role trustees plays in schools. We were fortunate to welcome three key-note speakers: Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System; Warwick Sharp, Director of Academies and Maintained Schools at the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA); and David Harkin, CEO of 7billionideas.
Baroness Berridge, the first of our keynote speakers, was effusive with praise for trustees during the pandemic and discussed how ethical and transparent governance of academy trusts has strengthened school leadership in this difficult time. Baroness Berridge went on to speak about how greater diversity and inclusion on academy trust boards can improve schools, referencing NSN and Confederation of School Trust’s recent publication #OnDiversity as a useful first step to help trustees reflect on the importance of these issues.
The vital role that trustees play in their communities was highlighted by Warwick Sharp who spoke about the importance of celebrating and raising the profile of good governance in schools. Warwick stressed that school improvement can be clearly traced through to new trustees and business professionals joining trust boards and called on the sector to be more vocal in highlighting its successes.
David Harkin spoke about how the education sector needs to embrace entrepreneurship. The disruption in the last year to schools has forced teachers and school leaders to use their imagination on how to work around challenges such as home schooling. This has presented school leaders with an opportunity to innovate. Every child has an amazing imagination and David spoke about his view that it’s the responsibility of educators to unlock that imagination and give children the belief that they can indeed go and change the world. For David, the quality of our school system in an ever changing world will be defined by whether we embrace the opportunity to encourage children to think creatively.
The National Schools Commissioner Dominic Herrington joined us for the second session of the Board Development Programme and outlined the key challenges and priorities for the education sector in the coming years. Although this past year has been a turbulent time for everyone, Dominic said he was optimistic about the future of governance. The pandemic has created positive legacies which school leaders can build on and has shone a spotlight on the importance of good school governance and leadership.
Dominic stated that COVID-19 has led to better local collaboration within local authorities and other schools as well. While the education system in England is largely autonomous, in recent months we have seen academy trusts and schools feel more comfortable working together to share their practices. This collaboration is key for schools to continue to develop in the coming years.
Looking to the future, Dominic outlined that it is his goal to ensure every academy trust has a strong set of governance arrangements. Dominic believes that a more effective school system could emerge if boards can instil three key principles: clarity of vision; executive accountability and financial oversight. Participants heard his vision to ensure governance arrangements across the country work around these principles.
For the third session of the Board Development Programme, Dineshi Ramesh and Anna Humphreys from software provider Board Intelligence joined us for a discussion on the drivers of effective board meetings. This event was enhanced through a number of polls where participants shared the biggest problems they face during their board meetings. Participants overwhelmingly said the biggest issue they had during board meetings was not spending enough time discussing the things that matter.
One of the main impediments towards tackling the key issues is that boards too frequently do not explicitly define their role. Dineshi and Anna invited trustees to think about whether their board has clearly outlined whether their function is to steer or supervise; only once a board’s role has been defined, can you then begin to set an effective agenda which align the boards priorities to the board’s goals. Dineshi and Anna introduced their board portal software as a useful tool to have these discussions.
Participants also said the biggest hindrance to good decision making on their board was that trustees lacked the desire to challenge each other’s ideas. When making decisions in board meetings, Dineshi and Anna highlighted that there are four questions boards need to discuss:
- What's the need, opportunity and why now?
- What do we propose to do and why?
- What alternatives have we considered?
- What do we need to do next?
These discussions ensure that all bases are covered when making decisions. When having those discussions trustees should be encouraged to think about the cognitive bias’ which may influence their individual and collective views on certain issues.
For the fourth Board Development session we welcomed Ambition Institute’s Executive Director of System Leadership, Sir David Carter. Sir David led a terrific session offering advice on a range of topics including strategic improvement, 100 day plans, system leadership, improvement culture, and barriers to operational excellence.
Sir David said that the leadership pyramid model should inform a trusts strategic improvement. This model begins through a four stage process:
- First, defining your values - What are the behaviours that will underpin the journey?
- Then, outlining your strategy - How are you going to get there?
- Thirdly, clarifying your vision - What is the destination of your ambition?
- Lastly, mapping your mission - Why does your organisation exist?
Sir David emphasised the importance of a positive mind-set for trustees; offering a challenge to trustees to leave their schools in a better state than when they inherited them. According to Sir David, if all trustees saw themselves as stewards of the school, improvement would be made at over 20,000 schools in the system. For sustainable improvement to take place it’s vital that trustees log and codify the developments they’ve made along the way, so that trust leaders 50 years from now can lead effectively, based on the track record of what has worked and failed in the past.
Our fifth Board Development Programme event featured a discussion on diversity and inclusion with Karen Giles, Chair of the Inspire Partnership; Kamel Hothi, Former Head of Responsible Business, Asian Markets & Special Projects at Lloyds Banking Group; and Louise Thomson, Head of Policy at Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA).
Karen Giles spoke about the need to urgently take action to make boards more diverse and inclusive. The murder of George Floyd in the USA has started a conversation about the diversity of where we work, live and play; but more importantly how we too frequently fail to reflect the communities we serve. Action must now be taken at a strategic level. Diversity doesn’t simply mean people who have different skin colours, genders or nationalities on boards - we must seek diversity of thought, as every person brings rich experiences with them into the workplace.
Adding to Karen’s views, Kamel Hothi outlined how diversity on boards leads to higher productivity levels. Yet sadly in reality, the vast majority of organisations have had little success in building diverse boards. Kamel referred to her experience of working in the private sector to discuss the critical element of inclusivity, telling attendees that when diverse graduates are recruited to organisations, too frequently they leave after a couple of years because they do not feel empowered. Every organisation needs to understand where these individuals are they coming from, what support is needed and whether mentoring is required. A safe and accepting space must be built and nurtured to allow honest dialogue to emerge.
For the last session in the series we had a timely discussion on mental health and wellbeing in schools with Professor Russell Viner President, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health; Helen Westerman, Local Campaigns Manager, NSPCC/ChildLine; Molly, an NSPCC service user and member of the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Youth Forum; and Mark Cooke, Director of Strategy and Transformation, NHS.
This event started off with our speakers outlining the known facts about mental health issues caused by the pandemic. Helen shared data from ChildLine showing a sharp increase in calls in relation to mental health throughout the pandemic – the NSPCC is currently providing 19,000 counselling sessions per month. Russell highlighted research showing that nationally there has been an increase from one-in-nine to one-in-six in mental health issues reaching the level defined as a diagnosed clinical problem. Russell shared his worries of ‘snowball impact’ that will remain in the coming years, due to ongoing remote learning, concerns about family members, increases in child poverty and the broader economic impacts of the pandemic.
In addition to the evidence provided by Helen and Russell, Molly bravely shared the anxiety she felt when schools closed in March. Throughout the first nation-wide lockdown, she had multiple anxiety attacks and struggled to get out bed due to a lack of motivation – she was worried about her GCSE results and her Mum, who was continuing to go to work. Molly was worried she would lose friends and her confidence due to a lack of socialising, and her peers shared they had been worried about family, friends, and exams.
With consideration on how trustees and school leaders can improve mental health outcomes in their schools, Mark recommended that the Marmot Review’s ‘Fair society, Healthy lives’ on inequalities in society should be read by trustees; the report found that since 2010 exclusions have increased alongside cuts to youth support provision. Excluded students are 10 times more likely to have a mental health problem and four times more likely to live in poverty – as well as more likely to grow up in difficult environments (e.g. abusive). Mark urged trustees to consider this at board level – it’s important, now more than ever, that trustees step-up to support pupils so they can achieve good mental health, prospects for employment and self-esteem.
Russell added that there were a number of ways to promote wellbeing, specifically referencing exercise and fitness as a ‘social vaccine’ for almost any condition. Affording pupils the sense of being connected and broader culture is crucial, and schools need to promote active lifestyles and healthy eating. On resilience, Russell suggests it can be from within or developed from environments, but the pandemic has caused issues even for the most resilient young people and will need addressing.
Throughout this six-part series, each speaker was effusive with praise for the work that trustees have been doing on school boards across the country through the pandemic. We hope that attendees came away from our events with a sense of optimism that our schools can and will improve to even higher levels than before the pandemic.