The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

COVID-19 – testing the resilience of our governance structures

I want to start by expressing sincere gratitude to everyone working in education at the moment, in all capacities; you are supporting our young people and your communities during a time of national crisis. I applaud your commitment and professionalism in supporting them whether this is within their home environment or in your schools. Thank you!
Governance during a crisis is as critical as it is during ‘normal’ working conditions, but the priorities and emphasis look very different for a period of time. During uncertainty, as we are experiencing now, everyone looks upwards for help, support and guidance. Pupils look to their teachers, teachers to their department head, and so it goes on until all eyes are focused on the CEO for that direction and reassurance.

The CEO needs to have the space to make decisions, whilst knowing that this space is provided within a strong framework of principles and values. The CEO needs to have the certainty that what they are putting in place is in line with the expectations of the Trust Board. As Trustees it is our responsibility to have provided that framework and that space.

Times of crisis test our systems, processes and policies, they also test the resilience, leadership and character of those in senior roles. As Trustees we have to be very conscious of the wellbeing of our leadership team, as they will be reacting to changing circumstances, making decisions that involve consequences that are far reaching, at a time when they have their own anxieties and concerns to manage.

None of this is easy.

As the UK Government started to make alterations to our daily routines in early March, our Trust, Consortium, held its first Critical Incident Team meeting. At that time we were scenario planning and asking lots of ‘what if’ questions. We’re now implementing some of those plans in response to the changing circumstances. The weekly meetings are now completely virtual and are attended by key Trust Board members; myself as Chair, the Chair of Finance and Resources, the Chair of Education and Learning, and the Safeguarding Trustee. We form part of a wider team with the Executive Leadership, but we are therefore confident that all aspects of the Trust are being considered and risk managed – we are contributing to the decision making, and the CEO and the Trust team are supported throughout.

Our locality committee (LGB) delegations were suspended and the Trust Board regained full governance responsibility; this immediately gave a clear line of accountability and communication for decision making. It also took a lot of pressure off local decision making – should we run the meeting, should we meet face to face, what do we expect from the Headteacher, will the School Business Manager provide a budget monitoring report?

Communication to staff and parents was all co-ordinated through the CEO and distributed by the local school leadership. This prevented mixed messages, local ‘rules’ and provided consistency and systematic communication to be established during the immediate intense period of change.

But none of this centralised co-ordination was a surprise, it was the implementation of our Critical Incident Plan and Business Continuity Plan. As a Trust we had discussed these key plans, we’d tested them with mock incidents, and therefore we had confidence that the systems in place worked and were stringent.

As Trustees in the Critical Incident Team we have continued to challenge and to support, to bring our expertise and differing perspectives and opinions into the decision making.

It is, however, even more important than ever, to know the boundaries between strategic and operational. Whilst we are all working very closely as a team, the implementation is absolutely the role of the CEO and the Executive Team. The strategic decision making needed to enable the effective management of the crisis is the remit of the Trust Board and their representatives on the Critical Incident Team.

In my role as Chair, I have been standing side by side (on a virtual basis) with the CEO. We have discussed many concerns that we both have, we have shared anxieties and welcomed any positive feedback from staff and parents. We are very much a Trust that has been set up to collaborate and support each other and we are all available to talk and listen as is needed.

Times of crisis test our systems, processes and policies, they also test the resilience, leadership and character of those in senior roles.

Dawn Carman-Jones

In my opinion, all experiences are learning experiences and I have personally discovered a lot in a very short space of time; about our Trust, about the people within the Trust, and also about myself.

I’ve also confirmed that strong trust governance is built over a period of time, integrated into trust leadership, and is stringent on the development and testing of trust structures, policies and procedures. All of this has to function within a strong shared vision and ethos which in turn provides the framework for decision making.

In many ways COVID-19 has provided a resilience test for the systems of the entire global community and on a micro scale, the resilience of the systems within our Trusts and Governance structures. We all will have seen our strengths, the areas that need development and our fragilities. We will have time, at some point, to pause and reflect, and use this knowledge to ensure that our trusts are underpinned by solid, strategic governance that is challenging and supportive; and creates that space and framework for our CEOs and Executive Leaders to make their decisions.

I will end, as I began, with a heartfelt thank you, to all those who are working in very difficult and uncertain times; and to all those members, trustees and local committee members who are giving of their time, voluntarily, to ensure that we continue to be a sustainable, stable contributor to the education environment.