'No Committee' Governance

Graeme Hornsby - January 2015

In my recent work with many different governing bodies, running training for clerks and dialogue with others involved in supporting and developing effective governance I have been particularly interested in the emergence of different approaches to governance.  There is much information and guidance to help us take advantage of the reduced prescription around how school governing bodies operate and the freedoms should be allowing us to be better prepared for the increased scrutiny applied to school governance.

The model that attracts most interest and debate is the 'no committee' structure whereby the full governing body (I will use this term to include the board of directors in academy trusts) meets on a more regular basis without a formal standing committee structure beneath it.  The 'no committee' tag is potentially misleading as there is still a need for committees/panels for functions such as exclusions, some human resources matters such as pay, grievance, redundancy etc. potentially for admissions in some categories of schools.  We also know that the Academies Financial Handbook requires an Audit Committee or for this function to be within the remit of a wider committee.  The helpful clarifications of 'must, should and may' in the Handbook, make it clear that the steer is that Trusts should have a finance committee – so we have options and there is often useful work which can be done to rationalise the various terms of reference for these committees and panels.  A topic for a later blog.

My awareness had been kindled by reading an (now sadly lost) article by a headteacher who had tried and strongly advocated the no committee model and also by guidance from some Local Authorities on alternative models of governance.  I was also aware of the role of Interim Executive Boards and some recommendations that their use be extended - although Interim Executive Board's were still seen as more appropriate for weaker schools.

My thinking on effective governance moved on significantly when I became a full time school business management and governance consultant (although still clerking at some schools) and in particular working with the New Schools Network and groups applying to open new schools. Such groups usually have the joy of starting with a blank sheet of paper for their governance structure rather than the vested interests, entrenched views and/or custom and practice that can sometimes cloud thinking in established school governance.

One of my learning points from working with free school groups and the blank sheet of paper on governance structures was that the probably the worst place to start in the design of a governance structure is with the governance structure.  Things made much more sense when we started with what needed to be governed and sought to wrap the governance around this.  At the time I felt that in recognition of three significant areas of governance - strategic direction, teaching and learning and statutory responsibilities the governance of these areas could be best provided for by the full governing body, a teaching and learning committee and a business management committee.  I had certainly seen the two-committee structure work well and avoid some of the pitfalls that arise from a plethora of committees.  I was also a strong supporter of the use of a core group of governors to work with the chair and clerk to co-ordinate the work of the governing body - this had worked well in my own experience and is also featured in the 2011 publication by Ofsted  'School Governance – Learning from the Best'.

Accepting an invitation to serve on an Interim Executive Board provided me with first hand experience of this way of working (and the new experience of attending governing body meetings without having to write lots of notes).  I was immediately struck with an appreciation of the pace and rigour that could be applied by an Interim Executive Board in both addressing some significant concerns and also to deal with the more routine discharge of governor responsibilities.  This led me to question if the 'no committee' Interim Executive Board Structure could be applied successfully to schools deemed to be good or outstanding.

Guidance from Essex LA on the pros and cons on models including a no committee structure highlighted concerns including the potential for long and unfocussed meetings but this was not what I was experiencing on the Interim Executive Board – perhaps due to the quality of the Chair, Clerk, Improvement Partner and in time a newly appointed Headteacher.  There was certainly a similar potential for heavy workloads as in other schools for governors as often unduly overburdened volunteers but also for the Head, business manager and other staff in servicing and supporting (or some might admit to driving) the governance structure.  

The Governing bodies I worked with as a clerk already embraced most of the good practice in “Learning from the Best' including having annual work plan.  The plans were reasonable well developed and thankfully recognised that the frequency of committees should aligned to their workloads and timings of what needed to be done rather than any odd notion that each committee needed to meet just before each GB meeting and be tied to that frequency/timings. So Teaching and Learning Committee meetings were aligned to take place shortly after the half termly assessment points of pupil progress with the Business Management Committee largely driven by the cycle for budget and staffing decisions with other work distributed throughout the year.

We had managed things reasonably successfully so that most meetings gave good support and challenge and got through the business in anything between 1-2 hours.  We made good use of time limited working groups or task and finish groups involving governors and staff and occasionally others to deal with some matters - with careful consideration as to whether the remit of such groups was decision making or to form recommendations for consideration by the full Governing Body.  One of the unforeseen consequences of developing he stronger committee structure was the danger that so much was handles well in committees that there was a real danger that full governing body meetings were somewhat superfluous and attendance at this level sometimes fell off unless there was a particularly meaty or controversial item.

Taking the annual plan and looking to revise it to work without committees led to a dawning realisation of just how much I was stripping out. 'Learning from the Best' counsels against risk of duplication and I was managing the risk my removing it.  Whereas I had gone into the exercise with the notion that there would be more work to be done it is on reflection rather obvious that there is less work when we strip out the need to appoint chairs, vice chairs and clerks, produce and seek to maintain terms of reference and particularly produce, receive and discuss reports/minutes at multiple levels.  

A key point for me was however not to seek to conduct the same business at each governing body meeting and certainly not for example to require e lengthy Headteacher or Business Manager's report at each meeting! Now I had what I felt was a workable proposition and thankfully in one of the schools I clerked at an open minded and progressive governing body and headteacher who were prepared to trial the model for a year - always recognising that we could at any stage stop the trial and revert back to a more traditional model.

We are now in the second academic year of using this model at this school and the evaluation at the end of the first year was extremely positive.  Governors and staff were spending less time in meetings but covering greater ground.  Governors reported they felt much better informed as the were not excluded from any aspect by not being on a particular committee.  The Headteacher and other staff recognised that they were never far away from a decision where one was needed as the agenda for the full governing body meeting could accommodate any item – I can certainly recall occasions under other frameworks where we needed a decision on business management matter but the next committee was the Teaching and Learning Committee.  Ofsted arrived early in the second year of operation of this structure and the school has survived this and various audits without concerns re the approach to governance – although I remain firmly of the view that we can have good or outstanding outcomes for pupils without good governance but that the reverse is not true.

So is it for you?  Perhaps.  Regardless of structure I still maintain that the key to effective operation is the notion that the governance is wrapped around the operation of the school with the work plan for governance aligned to the school calendar and deadlines for budgets/staffing decisions.  Efficiency and effective operation in meetings also requires the reports being fit for purpose and distributed in advance – again there is much good advice in “Learning from the Best'.

Having the right people in the right place at the right time is also crucial and despite an apparent fixation with skills we know that any rational consideration about governance requires people with both skills and capacity.  My own judgement is that the benefits of the no committee structure can significantly help with capacity issues and hopefully aid the recruitment and retention of good and outstanding governors and reduce the potential burdens on staff they support and challenge. This might even benefit the pupils...

I am now working with a larger academy that has adopted this model and is also developing the role of non-executive directors within the no committee structure.  It is early days but the signs are positive.

The no committee structure features in the Clerk's training workshops I provide often with lively discussions but I am frequently pleased that some delegates are leaving determined to trial it and I look forward to feedback from them.  I would also welcome views from the experience of others who have used similar models.