Quality information leads to quality conversations - board reports what do we need to know?

At a recent NGA Conference a presentation by Caroline Copeman, Senior Visiting Fellow at Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness, set me thinking about the topic for this my latest blog post.  One of Caroline's opening slides stated - 'Quality of conversation at board, and the ability to think well, needs quality information and thoughtful question prompts'. 

Now I have been involved in a number of board meetings recently at different schools that required some really important decisions to be made in the interests of our children. Reflecting on this, I could see how the quality of the discussion, and ultimately the quality of the decision, was indeed directly linked to the quality of the information provided for those meetings. 

So, if quality information is key to board effectiveness, why is it that boards spend so little time discussing, evaluating and agreeing what information best enables them to do their job well?  Or am I wrong about this? - Have you discussed this recently at your board? Whenever a group of governors gets together, either physically or virtually, it won't be long before the subject of board reports comes up - and, my oh my, what a wide variety there is! Some are a few pages of really relevant, focused information - some are enormous documents with lists of information, and contributions from across the school, that could be found elsewhere, or provided in a more focused way. - a list of visitors to school this term is my pet hate!  

Thoughtful planning about exactly what information governors need to have in order to make appropriate decisions is vital. It might be a termly report from the Headteacher, it might be a report from a working party setting out its findings, it might be a report from a governor or a member of the team focused on a specific question, it might be fully costed financial modelling of various options, but whatever it is it should be enough to enable the board to have those 'quality conversations' leading to challenge and quality decisions.(1)

We should also remember that 'The board, not executive leaders, should determine the scope and format of reports they receive from executive leaders' (2) This information must also be provided in a timely way (at least 7 days before the meeting date) in order for governors to be able to read and reflect  - the tabling of information, and agendas that give little clue as the the important decisions we may be asked to consider, is really poor practice and can lead to governors feeling unprepared and bounced into decisions.  In my view you should never go to a meeting if you don't know what it is going to be about - ask for information, ask for papers! (3) ..... and, non-negotiable, read these papers you must!  Another driver for this blog post was a recent conversation on Twitter where a contributor was bemoaning the fact that the report they had spent time preparing had clearly not been read by everyone at the meeting - so disrespectful! How can a board be doing their very best for the children of the school, how can the board have those quality conversations, if a percentage of those around the table haven't read the papers and prepared?

Nigel Gann argues that 'regular reporting from the Headteacher is likely to be the single most important source of information for the governing board on the performance of the school.' (4) - so why waste this opportunity?  Let's get that reporting as good as it can be and let's make it efficient in terms of the time spent preparing it, and the time spent reading it and preparing questions for the meeting.   Appropriate questioning of the information presented is an important aspect of the challenge we offer to school leaders as set out by the DfE - 'Executive leaders should welcome and enable appropriately robust challenge by providing any data the board requests and responding positively to searching questions.' (5.) 

Questioning is not the only way we show challenge however, and I am a great fan of a series of blogs by Ruth Agnew where she argues that this organisation of agendas and board papers demonstrates a board that is holding its leaders to account.(6) The recent joint report by the NGA et al., concurs by arguing that the effectiveness of the relationship between leadership and governance can be demonstrated by leadership's 'willingness to provide information in the most appropriate way in order that the governing board can carry out its role' (7)  

Getting this information right for your board is not an isolated exercise, my previous blog post about vision and strategy stresses how important it is to be really clear about what you want to achieve for your school - indeed it is one of the 3 core functions of governance.(8)  Therefore the report to the board is a way for the executive to inform you of where you are on that journey - what progress towards your aims has been made and what problems have been encountered on the way. In our school this is called a Strategic Report to make its function explicit. It contains appropriate data; it contains information about things that have been happening in school, but only if these things are appropriate to the delivery of strategic aims.  An example of this might be information about transition arrangements, or the outcome and potential impact of meetings with our local secondary schools, as one of our aims is about preparing children for the next step on their educational journey. It might direct us to the updating of a report about the impact of Sports Premium Funding as another of our aims is 'To enable our school community, children, staff and governors to lead balanced and healthy lifestyles – heart, mind, body and soul.' - so you get the picture...

After we made this change, and held a review after a period of implementation, governors from the board I chair commented that it all suddenly seemed to make so much more sense.  Rather than a random collection of facts and information they could see how the information they were given related to the aims we have for the school and for our children. They were no longer overwhelmed with information but could understand its rationale and feel more confident to ask questions and contribute to an informed discussion.  I think this also leads to a greater likelihood of reports being read and given appropriate consideration because we cannot get away from the fact that, as board members come and go, and expertise and experience changes, there will always be challenges on this front!  No board is perfect - but we are all constantly trying to learn and modify our practice so that we can do our very best for our schools and the children and communities that we serve. Surely we are all constantly seeking to achieve those 'Quality of conversations'? 


NOTES

1. 'What is it like to be a child with SEND in our school' is a favourite question for this kind of specific report and, in my experience, leads to some fantastic discussion and understanding by the board. 

2. DfE Governance Handbook, 2019, p22

3. I am a great fan of annotated agendas, with questions for pre-meeting reflection, and I often have hyperlinks to useful articles etc as background.

4. Nigel Gann, Improving School Governance, 2016, Second Ed. p68

5. DfE Governance Handbook, 2019, p18

6. Ruth Agnew, https://rmagovernance.com/5-top-tips-for-bringing-challenge/

7. What Governing Boards should Expect... NGA, ASCL, NAHT, LGA [online at NGA website]

8. Rosemary Hoyle, 'Strategic Leadership (Vision, Ethos and Strategy)' January 2019 Blog - In Search of Great School Governance [online]

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