Governing In the Digital Age

The School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) (England) (Regulations 2013) which came into effect in September 2013 allow governors of maintained schools to participate in meetings via conference calls, etc. The regulations state

14 (8)     Notwithstanding the requirements of paragraphs (1) to (3), the governing body may approve alternative arrangements for governors to participate or vote at meetings of the governing body including but not limited to by telephone or video conference.

Academy governors already had the option to participate in governing body meetings via video conferencing, conference call, etc by virtue of their Articles. The above regulations now allow governing bodies of other schools to do the same. However, before maintained schools go down the virtual route, their governing bodies need to discuss and approve the procedure. Ruth Agnew has discussed what steps need to be taken before a governing body can have a virtual meeting. There was a Twitter discussion on this topic which has been storified here by Naureen Khalid.

@UKGovChat decided to survey its followers to see what they thought of virtual governance. We had only 25 responses which may indicate that virtual governance is not a major consideration for governing bodies in the current climate. The results of this survey are as follows. Because of the small numbers involved, these results must necessarily be interpreted with caution.

We started by asking if governors thought virtual meetings were a good idea.

The fact that 64% thought virtual meetings were a good idea may be due to the fact that the survey was conducted online and publicised via twitter. It may have, therefore, attracted respondents already familiar with the virtual  environment, thus skewing the results.

Although the sample size is very small, it is interesting that 44% have decided to make use of the freedom granted by the new regulations. It remains to be seen whether there is a greater uptake over time.

The fact that only 33% have an agreed protocol in place is of some concern. We would hopes that governing bodies will realise the significance of implementing appropriate procedures prior to embarking on virtual meetings.

Those who answered in the affirmative to the above question were then asked if they had encountered any problems.

The respondents were asked for comments to clarify their responses. The following observations were made.

  • There were no problems with virtual attendance though some took a while to get used to it (eg the need to identify oneself when one speaks).
  • Alternative arrangements for meetings including telephone and video conferencing is included within the model Articles for academies.
  • No dedicated conference phone available – need specific equipment for best reception.
  • The education ‘heads’ in the room were wholly unfamiliar with how this process worked and it took them a little time to adjust.
  • We voted not to allow it
  • Governor did not understand that dialling in meant had to actually participate.
  • Yes some governors did not have previous experience of conference call
  • Lack of protocols and/or understanding of them, lack of technical facilities
  • We used a conference call and it worked really well

Not unexpectedly, the problems experienced related to a lack of appropriate technical facilities, absence of protocols and people being unfamiliar with conference calling.

Conference calls are not a new concept. These are routinely used in the business, finance and other sectors. The next question was asked to in order to establish how many people are used to participating in meetings in this way.


The fact that 56% of the people responding use some method of virtual participation as part of their day job may explain the fact that 64% thought that this would be a good way to conduct governing body meetings.


It is of significance that 43% of governors thought that governing body meetings conducted “virtually” would face problems not seen in their day job. When asked to clarify their responses, the respondents said

  • Video conferencing is very skilled work and my governors will not know how to interact with the technology.
  • There is little or no difference. Let’s be frank, if the global board of BT, Coca Cola, Starbucks and many, many more can conduct meetings this way (and they do) then why do we have a caste of governors so against its adoption?
  • Schools not having suitable equipment & access to service that provides dial in number etc
  • Technical difficulties at work can be solved on site by IT specialists not available during the evening. Not all governors have access to equipment and secure firewalls. Difficult to manage large group meetings via ‘conferencing’.
  • Multiple simultaneous connections; more widely variable connection quality
  • Virtual governance v straightforward if you have the right attitude and the right tech. Too many people making a big deal out of it probably because it’s new (although it isn’t really) and they don’t understand it.
  • Technology in school is not as advanced, documents are not always electronic and so unable to share.
  • Individual technical knowhow/equipment
  • Less technical competency
  • Lots of small schools do not have facilities for video conf or even proper dial in
  • Technical failure

The majority of people listed the lack of appropriate technological facilities as the cause of problems.

We were also interested in finding out if people thought there was any difference in conducting virtual meetings if these were full board meetings or committee meetings.


It is interesting to note that the majority of governors (63%) thought that dialling in would work both at committee and full board level. It is also interesting to note that the number of people who thought dialling in would work only at committee level was double the number who thought it would work only at full board level.

We were also interested in how virtual governance would work. To this end we asked the following questions.




Q13. WHAT DOES YOUR CLERK THINK OF VIRTUAL GOVERNANCE?

We only had 18 responses to this question which are as under.

  • Not been asked.
  • I am the clerk. It is not a problem so long as protocols are observed.
  • No opinion.
  • Won’t work.
  • On the fence publicly but I have a feeling there is strong resistance under the surface!!
  • Interested to know more about it!
  • Not keen.
  • Undecided
  • Useful for small committees to ensure meeting is quorate.
  • Don’t know, haven’t asked yet.
  • Haven’t asked.
  • No idea.
  • Not discussed.
  • Agrees it could work if there are protocols.
  • Not asked.
  • No problem – they work with the LA and they use it there.
  • We do not have a clerk!
  • Unsure.

And finally,

Q14. IN YOUR OPINION WHAT IS THE BIGGEST ADVANTAGE OF “VIRTUAL GOVERNANCE”?

  • Ease of meetings for busy people.
  • Keeps us quorate when governors can’t attend due to unforeseen circumstances.
  • Quick to set up meeting.
  • Flexibility.
  • Ensuring all opinions heard.
  • Time saved.
  • Governors who are away can still participate.
  • Possibility of proxy voting and post meeting decisions by email.
  • Getting meetings quorate.
  • Best for occasional use, to facilitate contribution by someone with key input who cannot attend through work, illness etc.
  • Help make it easy for people to participate.
  • Flexibility for meeting times.
  • Increase ability of governors to participate.
  • Better use of governors’ time.
  • People don’t have to miss meetings if they are away.
  • More time efficient. More convenient therefore more likely to have more people participating.
  • Those with the technology can be a part of a meeting at a time when it would have otherwise be prevented.
  • Participation of those not able to be at meeting.
  • Increased governor participation.
  • Participation at distance.
  • Greater chance of input from all governors.

Q15. IN YOU OPINION WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DISADVANAGE OF “VIRTUAL GOVERNANCE”?

  • Individuals can make excuses for not attending in person.
  • Needs tighter adherence to agenda than many governors are comfortable with.
  • Technology and some people.
  • Slightly disconnected feel to meetings.
  • Do schools have the technology to make it work?
  • Encourages people not to attend in person.
  • There aren’t any!
  • Governors not needing to turn up.
  • Participation focused on meetings.
  • Managing technical difficulties could suddenly render the meeting in-quorate. Governors not feeling part of the community of the school/college.
  • More difficult to have a proper debate if several participants are physically absent.
  • None.
  • Active discussion when several parties are on the phone is difficult.
  • Governors missing out on visiting the school, seeing and being seen by pupils/ staff.
  • People not understanding how it’s done.
  • Less personal. Less time in school.
  • Lack of personal time with those you should be in a team with. A lack of bonding.
  • Teamwork.
  • No biscuits.
  • Loss of Face time.
  • The unknown.

DISCUSSION

Although the sample size was small which means that the results have to be interpreted with caution, this survey has provided some useful insights to what governors think of virtual governance. The majority of people who responded thought that virtual governance was a good idea. Interestingly, of those who had decided to allow governors to participate virtually the majority still had to agree a protocol. We would argue that a clear protocol should be established prior to any agreement to virtual attendance. Agreeing a protocol establishes clear procedures regarding when and under which conditions a governor can dial in to attend,  if the chair should be allowed to dial in or do they need to be present in person, how voting will work and other related issues. At this point it is worth pointing out that Regulations do not permit proxy voting. Governors have to be present, either in person or “virtually” in order to cast votes. The same is true for Academy Directors. The model Articles allow Members of the Trust to cast proxy votes but not Directors.

Along with an agreed protocol it is clear that a number of governors, should such practice be adopted, would benefit from training in virtual attendance and we would recommend that governing bodies should look to providing this in order to facilitate those governors’ confidence and capacity to engage in this way. Many governors operating in the corporate world are already familiar with virtual meetings and should be in a position to support fellow governors in developing such skills, at no cost to the governing body. It is possible that an apparent unwillingness to engage with the virtual meeting (25% of respondents held the opinion that virtual governance would not work at any level) may be allayed by such provision.

Another matter of concern was the fact that the clerk does not seem to figure prominently in the discussion. Although ultimately, the decision to  adopt this practice sits with the governing body, they should, in our opinion, seek views of the clerk too. It is after all, the clerk who will be tasked with setting up the conference call and who has the responsibility for  minuting the meeting.

If your governing body does decide to allow participation via conference calls or other means, it needs to be aware of and prepared for problems which it may encounter. Many of these were mentioned by governors in response to Question 15 (see above). Some other issues are listed below.

1. Does your school have facilities to support “virtual governance”? There are various products in the market you can buy or you can use the various free systems available. The former has cost implications and the latter usually means that your governors will have to download and install the free system.

2. Firewall issues.

3. Connectivity issues, time delay and feedback problems.

4. Call drop-outs

Participation in meetings via conference calls etc is established practice in the commercial and business world.  Governing bodies, once they are aware of the issues involved and how to address them, need to consider carefully how introducing virtual governance might enhance their working practice and potentially move governance forward.

We would like to thank all our followers who took time to complete our survey.

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2 Responses to Governing In the Digital Age

  1. Terrance Ayres says:

    A happy New Year to all at UKgovchat. I believe governing bodies should embrace new technology and t some time in the future there will be a place for Virtual Meetings.

    Having been Chair of Governors of a inner city school what concerns me is cost and who will pay; 85% o my school budget is taken up with ffixed costs, which does not include the iternal and external costs of governance. Other concern is control – can the Chair ‘turn someone off’ if not toeing the line.

    I remember well the reaction when I suggested in an article in the Guardian (link shown below) that meetings could be held using screen instead of paper typical comment ” how can you hold a meeting without paper”. Although that is being overcome, going virtual will face resistance.

    http://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/dec/09/school-governors Terence Ayres

    • ukgovchat says:

      Happy New Year to you too.

      As far as costs are concerned, they depend, to some extent, on what IT facilities you have available. It may be that you cannot justify spending money on buying a conference call package. You may be able to use some of the free ones (like Skype). It would be interesting to repeat the survey one or two years down the line and see if more governing bodies have decided to hold some of their meetings this way.

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