July 2021 edition: Effective Trusteeship: A Personal View

Effective Trusteeship: A Personal View

Steve Hodsman, Chair of Trustees of the Delta Academies Trust and National Leader of Governance, shares his thoughts about what makes trustees effective, how the pandemic continues to impact on considerations for trustees and some of the issues that boards are likely to face in the year ahead.

 What makes a good trustee?

Good trustees can come from all backgrounds and walks of life. In my experience, good trustees are defined by their professional qualities not their professional background. It’s their behaviours and their approach to the trustee role that makes them stand out.

The most effective trustees that I’ve had the privilege to work with typically demonstrate five essential qualities. They are:

1. Being analytical, able to make reasonable evidence-based decisions.

2. Having the ability to develop themselves through conversations, reading and networks.

3. Being adept communicators who can engage at every level from children to the CEO.

4. Being confident in judging when to give support and when to provide challenge.

5. Being aware of their role and responsibilities and embodying the seven principles of public life.

Has governing through Covid-19 changed the role or profile of trustees?

The pandemic has not changed trusteeship. Its purpose is the same as it has always been. The Trust board shapes the ethos and vision, sets the Trust’s strategic direction and oversees the effectiveness and sustainability of the organisation. This is as true now as it was before Covid-19. However, what did change during the crisis is that Trust boards had to do things differently. This was clearly demonstrated in both the nature of board decision making across the pandemic and the span of support that trusts gave to their communities.

Many Trusts quickly centralised decision-making to provide the best possible support for schools at the greatest pace. This meant that Trust boards worked closely with their executive leaders to rapidly digest and interpret the huge volume of information, formulate guidance and disseminate it to their schools. Boards also enabled funds to be released quickly into new areas of need. This direction at Trust level meant that school leaders could focus on the critical work of providing continuity of education and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their staff, knowing that their trustees and executive leaders were both setting direction and fully behind them.

Many Trusts provided support widely, not just to their own schools but to local authority schools and to their local communities. The school’s role in being at the heart of the community that it serves, has cemented the idea that that the Trust is a civic institution that works to the benefit of its communities. It is essential therefore, that trustees understand the wider context in which their schools operate and have real impact.

What should Trust boards learn from their role in the crisis?

Trusts are still managing and mitigating the impact of the pandemic in many forms, from the assessment of GCSE and A Levels, to coping with the social and educational fallout of the year, to dealing with the continuing wave of infection that is primarily affecting our young people. It is by no means over yet.

There are huge learnings for trustees to reflect in their review of risk and contingency plans. All schools will have had plans for closure, pre-pandemic. Very few will have envisaged a crisis of this duration and the need to deliver virtual education for prolonged periods. Trustees now need to ensure that this capability is actively developed and enhanced as part of future risk and continuity planning.

Do trustees need new skills to lead Trusts through recovery?

Trusts do need new kinds of expertise to thrive in the post-Covid landscape, particularly around digital transformation - the adoption and embedding of technologies for teaching, learning and trust administration. Trustees with experience of this in other contexts can richly contribute through their remit to set strategy, including ensuring a forward-looking people strategy to recruit, develop and retain colleagues with the right level of expertise to achieve the Trust’s ambitions.

This direction at Trust level meant that school leaders could focus on the critical work of providing continuity of education and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their staff, knowing that their trustees and executive leaders were both setting direction and fully behind them.

Steve Hodsman

However, I would caution against looking to represent all the skillsets that a trust needs on its board because the board’s primary purpose is to oversee and hold to account. Trustees do not deliver services and Trusts that place too much emphasis on specific experience may create unhelpful expectations that those trustees get involved with delivery rather than oversee its progress. For me, the most important overarching trustee skills, irrespective of professional knowledge, are to listen and understand and to provide support and challenge.

What is likely to be on trustees' minds in the new school year?

Whatever the size or maturity of their Trust, all trustees will be looking hard in the coming year at the performance of their Trust’s recovery programme, and how these link to both its improvement agenda and development plans. They will also be giving ongoing consideration to staff wellbeing and how to continue to become better employers.

Trustees will need to continue listening carefully to the expectations of their stakeholders in the post-pandemic period, especially parents. Many parents have a new appreciation of what their school does because of their experiences of education over the last year. Many children have been provided with technologies to use at home, and some families have also been given broadband services. Parents have additionally had regular conversations about progress and wellbeing with teachers outside the traditional formats of parent meetings and seen various kinds of intervention such as tutoring programmes rolled out. Whilst the overall narrative of the pandemic is about learning loss, it is important to recognise that some children will have gained from learning outside the classroom and have insight as to why. So, I believe that trustees must keep listening to parents to understand how the pandemic has changed their expectations of their Trust’s role in the delivery of education.

2021/22 will be a significant year for School Trusts and for our sector. There has never been a more momentous time in which to serve on a Trust board. I would warmly recommend it to anyone who wants to make a difference to the lives and life chances of our young people.

CST’s Development Programmes for Trustees and Chairs in 2021/22 are now open for booking. Discover more here.