This article originally appeared in The Herald's Independent Schools magazine on Friday 2nd September 2016.
How well do school governors monitor the education and care of pupils in attendance at their institutions? This question was a key concern raised by Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate in their December 2013 report on Donaldson’s in Linlithgow.
The school has since made substantial improvements to its governance procedures, but the 2013 report still asks pertinent questions which remain relevant across the school sector as a whole.
The 2013 report found that there had been important weaknesses in governance at Donaldson’s, including weaknesses in communication between the board of governors, the school itself and key stakeholders. While it was clear from the report that the governors were keen to support the school and had a clear impression of the need for staff and school development programmes, there was felt to be a lack of shared understanding of the board’s overall governance role, and a lack of mechanisms designed to hold the school effectively to account. Under the new convenor then in place, the board was in a strong position to move forward and indeed subsequent reports show that great progress has been made.
Holding staff to account properly, and monitoring the education and care of pupils, can suffer badly if there are failings in governance. While the Donaldson’s example shows how this can be turned around with some support and encouragement, other charity examples have been much less positive.
The by now well-known debacle around Kids Company showed the serious effect that governance and financial failings could have on a substantial charity. There again the regulatory reports pointed to trustees needing to understand their charity’s business model and the risks which their charity faced, both internally and externally. But care of beneficiaries was also a major theme. The House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) set out a number of lessons for the sector as a whole, and which schools would do well to consider when carrying out reviews or reflecting on their current policies and procedures.
In relation to safeguarding, the PACAC report into Kids Company made clear that boards of charity trustees must take seriously any allegations which are made. It is crucial that there are solid processes in place to deal with allegations, and the responsibility for this rests ultimately with the charity trustees. In the Donaldson’s report, there had also been a finding that, initially at least, there had been no direct involvement by the board in school procedures for dealing with child protection or safeguarding complaints.
The PACAC report was also clear that charities must have contingency plans in place where a project or programme of work was at risk and where the beneficiaries who would be affected by closure were considered to be vulnerable. Thankfully few schools become insolvent or face this level of risk on an ongoing basis, but this is nevertheless a principle which should be borne in mind by school governors – the care of all pupils at a school will be of crucial importance, and there will be varying degrees of vulnerability across a school roll, which governors need to be sensitive to.
If all of this is to be managed properly, a school will need to have the right board of governors in place: a board of individuals with relevant experience and qualifications appropriate to the school in question is an essential of charity governance and will help to underpin the values on which the school is founded. Deloitte’s recent report on the governance of Citizens Advice Scotland is the latest example of how a charity can be seriously damaged by poor practice, lack of consistency and a board dynamic which was described as “dysfunctional” and driven by “cliques and personal interests”.
It should be plain to any board of school governors that their role is one of considerable responsibility. The care of pupils and the monitoring of standards and quality of education are of vital importance, and the welfare of children– of varying degrees of vulnerability – should be a key concern. All of these points will be assisted by robust governance procedures. None of this will be new to experienced school governors, but no school board, regardless of how well it functions, should lose sight of these key lessons from across the sector.