Image of Using the Governance Handbook to Ensure Compliance and Drive Improvement

Using the Governance Handbook to Ensure Compliance and Drive Improvement

In this article, Jenny Bond, experienced school leader, development consultant and leadership coach, provides expert insight into the Governance handbook, highlighting changes made in 2020 to help governing boards drive improvement in their particular setting.

As schools continue to navigate a post-covid world in a time of severe financial difficulties, the need for good governance has never been stronger. Schools need a governing board which can provide support and challenge in equal measure. Leadership teams need governors to bring expertise and guidance to the table to help drive school improvement, and work alongside school communities to bring about sustainable change for all pupils.

“Governance has never been more critical to the education of our nation’s young people. The governance duty is, above all, to drive relentless ambition for the young people served by our schools’ system, whatever the circumstances.” (Source: Governance handbook, 2020)

To strengthen and support governors in doing this, the DfE published the Governance handbook in 2015. As with all DfE documents, there have been several iterations of this, the most recent changes being made in October 2020, which currently remain in effect. I am going to briefly go through the purpose of the document and the most recent changes.

What is the purpose of the Governance handbook?

The DfE Governance handbook 2020 sets out the government’s vision and priorities for what effective school and trust governance should look like. Now more than ever, the document aims to tackle governance weakness and ensure that governing boards have the skills and knowledge needed to provide adequate support to schools. This support needs to come from a diverse range of stakeholders, reflecting different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives which are more in line with the communities they are representing.

It sets out the government’s vision and priorities for effective school and trust governance by explaining:

  • their roles and functions
  • their legal duties and where they can find more detailed information, guidance and resources
  • the information and support available to make a governing board effective

Additional guidance

To get the most out of the handbook, it should be used in conjunction with the following additional guidance: Competency framework for governance; Clerking competency framework; and, for academy trusts, Academies financial handbook.

The Competency framework for governance sets out the framework for effective governance so that boards can carefully consider whether they have the correct skills and knowledge amongst members. The Clerking competency framework recognises that professional-quality clerking is about much more than taking minutes. It’s also about providing governing boards with expert advice on governance, procedures and compliance. Therefore, clerks must be skilled and qualified for the role.

Academy trusts are required to comply with the Academies financial handbook as a condition of their funding agreement. The handbook provides an overview of how to effectively implement sound financial management in your setting.

Why is the DfE Governance handbook so important?

The governance handbook is crucial as it sets standards for governing boards and provides all the information needed to create an effective governing body. It provides a one-stop shop for governing boards to identify their function and responsibilities, and applies to all the following institutions:

  • LA maintained schools and academy trusts, academy trustees, governors, senior leaders, local governors, clerks and academy members
  • foundations, sponsors and other diocesan authorities with an interest in the governance of schools
  • organisations which support boards to develop more effective governance, including training providers

Most recent changes to the Governance handbook

On its publication in 2020, many people expected the updated Governance handbook to include specific Covid-19 guidance. However, given its evolving nature, it has been advised that all governing boards should check the Covid guidance on the government website, whilst the department will endeavour to keep them informed of any new guidance.

Below, I will look at the changes grouped according to the 6 features of effective governance:

1. Strategic leadership

The 2020 updates give further emphasis for the board to be involved in safeguarding through the promotion of British values, and have robust information to assess risk around their strategic priorities and improvement plans.

2. Accountability

Governing boards are expected to take part in the strategic direction of a school, with a focus on school improvement planning, and avoid getting involved in the day-to-day running of a school. The updates in Section 2 focus on the responsibilities of headteachers to their governing bodies and making sure that they are aware of obligations towards each other.

Alongside their involvement in strategic development, governors now have a bigger responsibility to protect the financial health of their school. The EFSA has provided a toolkit to support boards in their role around financial wellbeing, which can be used alongside the View My Financial Insights and Schools financial value standard tools to ensure leaders are financially accountable.

Governors should be aware of the content of the government’s Making data work report from 2018 in relation to workload challenges for the whole school community.

The updates for 2020 reflect the impact of Covid-19 and note that boards should continue to make it possible to meet remotely if this means that all members can participate fully. When organising visits, governors must ensure that they are in line with the school’s Covid and risk assessment policies.

3. People

The two most important changes here are, firstly, that governing boards are supported by a skilled and knowledgeable clerk who can meet the criteria set out in the Clerking competency framework. Board members should also be inducted fully to ensure they can adhere to the expectations as set out in the governance role descriptors.

Secondly, governing boards must ensure that they reflect the diversity of the communities that they represent and work to promote inclusivity in all they do. Trusts must maintain a register of interests in accordance with the Academies financial handbook.

4. Structures

Section 4 continues to focus on the structure of a board in maintained schools, federated schools and academy trusts. Whilst laying out the expected structure of a trust board, the additions highlight the importance of members not being employees of the trust.

5. Compliance

There were significant updates to Section 5, most importantly around RSHE. Teaching RSHE is now compulsory, and the updates outline expectations regarding what schools can teach and how parents can withdraw their children, if they choose to. Governors must ensure that there is a suitable policy in place to explain the school's approach to RSHE, especially primary schools, if they are teaching elements of sex education which are outside the government’s expectations for science.

There are additions which focus on the governing body’s role in ensuring that safer recruitment policies are adhered to, and that all schools have a cyber security risk assessment included in their GDPR considerations.

Most importantly, the updates clarify the importance of the role of safeguarding in all governing boards. All governors should be fully aware of and responsible for the challenge around safeguarding and policies within a school, and ensure that the DSL is in place and fully trained. Furthermore, governors must make sure that schools have childcare provision in place to support pupils in school with medical conditions.

6. Evaluation

Finally, Section 6 updates focus on restarting Ofsted inspections from January 2021 using the new framework, and the role the governing board has in any inspection. They explain the process of intervention if a governing board is found to be inadequate, and direct boards to sources of support for any occasion.

Further information on the DfE Governance handbook and its updates

These updates reflect the constant need to make sure that governing boards are a useful tool to support and drive school improvement. They need to be up to date with all safeguarding and strategic processes and policies within their schools, and work with leadership teams to provide the best opportunities for our pupils in such challenging times.

Discover further insight and guidance by browsing our governance category, helping your governing board meet statutory requirements, enhance practice, set strategic direction and oversee accountability.