Reflections on the COVID-19 #TrustLeaders Seminars

Sarah Ginns, Research & Consultancy Manager at Forum Strategy

Even a month ago, none of us could have predicted the impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on our education system. Let us not forget it has been less than a fortnight since the Prime Minister announced to the nation that all schools would be shutting – apart from for the most vulnerable children and those of critical workers.

In that time; amongst the frantic activity of school leaders, teachers, support staff and all those ensuring the safe running of our schools; we have witnessed leadership, collaboration, bravery and altruism on a scale never before seen. As Steve Munby – former CEO of the National College for School Leadership – said in his recent TES article: “in my whole lifetime, I have never in education seen such selflessness, such courage and such service from so many”.

This collective effort, in the face of unprecedented adversity, provides a kind of joy and hope at a time where things are at best uncertain and at worst terrifying for so many of us. Those teachers and leaders still working in our schools set out every day to care for some of the most vulnerable children in our society – including those who come to school every day frightened for the health and wellbeing of their parents and carers working in our health and social care sectors.

Last week, the team at Forum Strategy had the great privilege to speak with dozens of academy trust CEOs from our six regional #TrustLeaders networks – as we ran a series of urgent online seminars to gauge their responses to the current crisis, share practice between trusts in ‘real time’, and to draw out some of their amazing stories of leadership, partnership and support.

 We heard many examples of courageous and servant leadership. The sessions also included some timely professional development – David Strudley CBE, former CEO of Rainbows and Acorns Children’s Hospices, also helped CEO members to reflect on how to approach leading their organisations through crisis. He emphasised importance of staying positive, focussed, healthy, in control and adaptable. David helpfully captured this in an extensive article, which can be read here: http://localhost/forumold/surviving-the-recession-a-childrens-hospice-trusts-approach-to-the-crash-of-2008-and-its-aftermath/

The relationship with governance in a crisis

In the same article, David highlighted the vital support he was able to draw on from the Chair of the Board – whom he describes as “ever present, without once being intrusive”. This emerged as a key theme from CEOs during last week’s online seminars, who highlighted that what they need now more than ever is for their trust boards to ‘be there’ for them as CEOs – ready with support and guidance as necessary, but without adding to the immense pressure of the situation. Indeed, Helen Stevenson – Chair of the Heath Family of Schools in the North West – reflects on her own approach as Chair of an academy trust of nine schools, saying: “I spoke to my CEO early last week to agree how we could operate over the coming weeks and months to ensure the executive team are well supported, but also ensure as trustees we weren’t contributing to their workload or causing any additional stress”. Indeed, this trust has taken the decision to suspend local governing body meetings, whilst ensuring that local governors are kept in the loop through clear, regular and co-ordinated communications, with queries directed to the Chair rather than straight to the executive team. The CEO will continue to provide weekly updates to the board, but in a way that is flexible and enables him to respond to and manage developments on the frontline as a priority.

That’s not to say the business of governance or oversight should go away, it just needs a slightly different tone and a different way of working in these circumstances as trusts and schools adapt. The DfE’s latest school governance update (March 2020) emphasises that whilst school governing boards and academy trust boards must continue to comply with their statutory duties, current regulations do allow alternative arrangements to be made in such exceptional circumstances as presented by the current pandemic. The guidance “urges governing boards to be pragmatic in what they cover in meetings during this time, and to be proportionate in the decisions that they are planning to take”; and that “boards should prioritise providing support to their school leaders and staff where needed, to allow them to get on with operational matters”. In more practical terms, the NGA’s new guidance recommends that governing boards arrange virtual meetings by telephone, video conference or through an online platform, rather than conducting business and voting by email correspondence, which they consider “lacks immediacy … and can make recording problematic for the clerk/governance professional”.

In working this way and striking the right balance, the CEOs of academy trusts both large and small across the system can be assured their trust boards have ‘got their back’ as they themselves draw on their experience and moral purpose to support leaders both within and beyond their trusts. Over the last couple of weeks we have been flooded with offers of support between our #TrustLeaders network members; and have seen countless examples of similar support across social media platforms, with leaders being unafraid both to ask for help and to offer their time and experience.

Other conclusions from our online #TrustLeaders seminars

In addition to the above feedback on appropriate governance during last week’s online #TrustLeaders seminars, CEOs also highlighted several other key issues:

  • There is a real urgency in planning for the Easter holidays – and without any clear guidance from the DfE, academy trust CEOs are already putting in place rota systems to ensure both staff cover and appropriate leave entitlements.
  • Many were eager to see guidance around free school meals and the proposed national voucher system. We ensured government were aware of this, and we were pleased to see guidance emerge early this week.
  • Schools and academy trusts are particularly concerned about keeping in touch with some of their most vulnerable children whilst they are not attending school; and are rapidly establishing processes to ensure regular contact and to escalate any concerns.
  • There are huge concerns across the sector about the potential negative impact of these circumstances on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils and students; as well as on school staff and CEOs themselves, and whether this is being sufficiently noted by central government. Look out for more on this in the coming weeks.
  • Whilst appreciating that ‘front line’ staff in the health and social care sectors take priority; there remain real concerns about the perceived lack of availability of both PPE (personal protective equipment) and virus testing in the education sector.

Our founder Michael Pain has been in regular communication with the National Schools Commissioner to ensure that feedback is shared with those at the most senior levels. The feedback has been taken very seriously and responses have been timely.

Whatever happens in the weeks and months to come, there is no doubt our schools and academy trusts have once again shown themselves to be beacons of leadership and hope.

Key learning points

  • When drawing on your own experience, remember that no-one has all the answers and don’t be afraid to ask for help – start by looking at the list of CEOs offering support on Forum’s website: http://localhost/forumold/covid-19-resources-and-support-for-trustleaders/
  • Keep your Trust Board in the loop and work with your Chair to develop agreed ‘ways of working’ during the current crisis. This will ensure your Trust is complying with its statutory duties whilst preventing unnecessary additions to workload.
  • Remember to keep telling your ‘positive news stories’ – our Marketing and Resources Manager, Rachael Gacs, is keen to hear from you as she collates examples of great leadership and collaboration across the academy trust sector over the coming weeks.

References

#BeingTheCEO in a crisis: hints, tips and reflections from David Strudley CBE: http://localhost/forumold/surviving-the-recession-a-childrens-hospice-trusts-approach-to-the-crash-of-2008-and-its-aftermath/

3 tips for leading a school through the Covid-19 crisis: https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-3-tips-leading-school-through-covid-19-crisis

DfE School governance update March 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-governance-update

NGA ‘Governing in challenging circumstances, Business continuity and holding virtual meetings: https://www.nga.org.uk/Knowledge-Centre/Executive-leaders-and-the-governing-boards/The-Coronavirus-Information-for-governing-boards-M.aspx

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