As the chair of governors at a maintained school, a recent question has arisen as to how we can conduct the governance business required whilst there are recommendations that face to face contact is avoided.
The School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) (England) Regulations 2013 provide guidance on how a governing body (more commonly referred to as a governing board) must operate.
Regulation 14 provides:
(1) The quorum for a meeting of the governing body and for any vote on any matter at such a meeting, is one half (rounded up to a whole number) of the membership of the governing body.
(2) For the purposes of paragraph (1) the membership of the governing body does not include vacant positions on the governing body.
(3) Every question to be decided at a meeting of the governing body is to be determined by a majority of the votes of the governors present and voting on the question.
(4) Where there is an equal division of votes the chair, or as the case may be, the person who is acting as chair for the purposes of the meeting (provided that such person is a governor), will have a second or casting vote.
(5) No decision to serve notice of discontinuance of the school under section 30 of the SSFA 1998 whether taken by the governing body or by a committee, will have effect unless it is confirmed by the governing body at a meeting held not less than 28 days after the meeting at which the decision was made and the matter is specified as an item of business on the agenda for both meetings.
(6) No decision to change the name of the school will have effect unless the matter is specified as an item of business on the agenda for the meeting.
(7) The proceedings of the governing body of a school are not invalidated by—
(a)any vacancy among their number
(b)any defect in the election, appointment or nomination of any governor
(c)any defect in the appointment of the chair or vice-chair; or
(d)any person not having received written notice of the meeting or a copy of the agenda for the meeting.
(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.
In light of this, regulation 14(8) allows governors to make arrangements to participate or vote at meetings other than by face to face contact. This may include telephone or video conferences, with modern technology it’s also possible to utilise secure online meeting facilities. Any arrangement will need to be mindful of obligations under GDPR and confidentiality.
Practically, many schools may not have a defined policy in respect of the holding of virtual meetings. The powers under Regulation 14(8) can be utilised without a policy but it is good practice to have a policy which is followed and reviewed for certainty of the governing board and its members.
With meetings scheduled, urgent decisions may need to be taken as to whether they go ahead in light of the current pandemic. It is possible for the chair of governors to make decisions when they are required to do so under regulation 8 which provides:
(1) Where paragraph (2) applies, the chair may exercise -
(a) any function of the governing body which can be delegated to an individual; and
(b) any function that under regulation 19(2) cannot otherwise be delegated to an individual.
(2) The circumstances are that the chair is of the opinion that a delay in exercising the function would be likely to be seriously detrimental to the interests of -
(a) the school
(b) any pupil (1) at the school, or their parent; or
(c) a person who works at the school.
(3) In paragraph (2), “delay” means delay until the earliest date on which it would be reasonably practicable for a meeting of the governing body, or of a committee to which the function in question has been delegated, to be held.
(4) Where it appears to the vice-chair that -
(a) the circumstances mentioned in paragraph (2) apply, and
(b) the chair (whether by reason of vacancy in the office or otherwise) would be unable to exercise the function in question before the detriment referred to in that paragraph is suffered,
the reference in paragraph (1) to the chair is to be read as if it were a reference to the vice-chair.
Regulation 8 therefore allows the chair to exercise any function of the governing body in circumstances where they are of the opinion that the delay in exercising the function would be seriously detrimental to the interests of the school, any pupil, their parent or a person who works at the school.
This needs to be considered in light of how long the delay would be until a meeting can be arranged to discuss the necessary item. In situations where the chair is not available then this power may be exercised by the vice chair. It is important to note that any exercise of this power needs to be undertaken reasonably and it is good practice to then report back to the governing body on the use of the power, reasons for it and agree ratification of the decision as soon as possible.
This allows the chair to make decisions on whether the face to face meetings should be rearranged or held by alternative means in the urgent circumstances of the current pandemic and advice from government.
One of the great issues for schools at the present time is how long the current pandemic will last and the changing nature of advice from government sources.
Day to day management of the crisis is an operational one for senior leadership teams in the schools. The governors have no direct role in this decision making, but are an important source of support for the senior leadership team in a dynamic and interesting period of time.
The use of alternatives to face to face governor meetings is therefore crucial and necessary in the current climate and thought needs to be given to how this will be done.