Follow-up: COVID-19 - Sizing the problem, addressing the risks

Published: 20 Apr 2020

Introduction

Thank you to all of those who signed up and participated in the AoC webinar on Governance and COVID-19. The session received very positive feedback and revealed an appetite for further events which provide an opportunity for governors, governance professionals and other college leaders to connect with each other. As a result, AoC is working with a range of colleges and partners to develop a series of regular webinars which will focus on key areas of interest to our members including college finance and solvency, quality monitoring and data collection of online delivery, staff and student wellbeing. Further details will be made available shortly.

In the meantime, if you feel there is a burning governance issue faced by your college, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Additionally, if your college has been involved in delivering excellent practice that you would like to share, let us know via governance@aoc.co.uk

Webinar Summary: Sizing the Problem, addressing the risks

AoC and FE Commissioner’s Team collaborated to deliver the webinar in response to the unprecedented circumstances that colleges and government agencies are currently dealing with. Both parties recognised that while there are few definitive answers to the challenges being faced by colleges, it would be helpful to have a discussion to reflect on the risks and provide an opportunity to hear from the FEC and AoC.

The session highlighted some of the key areas where college governors should remain highly engaged to ensure effective oversight as the support their executives in trying to safely navigate their colleges through the COVID-19 crisis period.

The session was moderated by Kirsti Lord (AoC Deputy CEO), David Hughes (AoC CEO) reflected on the challenges of the context and provided a political overview and Julie Nerney (AoC Chair) closed the session. The FEC team’s presentation is below and the webinar link is available on the AoC website here. The areas discussed were:

  • Health and safety
  • Learners and learning: support, achievement, admissions
  • HR and staffing
  • Financial resilience
  • Resumption after the crisis
  • Communications and the community

Sandra Prail, NLG, provided a perspective on how boards would might effectively execute their support and challenge functions during the COVID-19 Pandemic as well as insights from BHA SVIC. 

The panel responded to a series of questions generated from the audience. 

What are the key questions coming from boards or governance professionals and how would you respond to them?

Due to technical difficulties, Kurt Hall, AoC Governance Advisor was not able to respond to the question that was raised during the event. His response is summarised below:

Questions have been emerging on a range of areas that have already been discussed. The key area that we haven’t looked at so far has been around specific governance arrangements. Particularly, whether and to what extent it is appropriate to review governing documents as a response to the current crises.

These questions have all been around the specific college’s circumstances and so the most helpful advice from me is around principles that colleges may want to apply to aid in decision-making when considering altering governance arrangements during this crisis. There are four key things I would advise considering along with the specifics of the change:

  1. Chairs’, governance professionals and principals, should try everything possible to maintain the highest level of scrutiny within the context. In terms of meetings, for example, the key priority would be to facilitate electronic meetings (telephone or video conference) and the college should do as much as possible to support as many governors as possible to attend remotely.
  2. In some cases, the introduction of virtual meetings and electronic decision-making are not addressed or are precluded by governing documents. It is important that colleges stay within the formal boundaries of their governing documents. However, given the current crisis, it would be expected that colleges interpreted the provisions of their governing documents in the broadest sense as long as that interpretation is in aid of enabling increased scrutiny and effective decision-making. Therefore, if the governing documents do not preclude a reasonable or practical course of action that would allow for full meetings and effective decisions, it should be carefully considered for adoption.
  3. In making significant changes to the governance structures, it is advisable to consult with colleagues in other colleges and/or a recognisable agency such as AoC or the Charity Commission (as well as checking with resources such as the AoC Code, DfE governance handbook or Charity Commission guidance). Furthermore, decisions should take into account the colleges context, how the action fits within previous practice and current constitution of the board and the extent to which members may be excluded or participation may be biased.      
  4. Where any decision is being made throughout this period, it is absolutely essential that an audit trail is maintained. One way to do this would be to articulate a rationale and evidence the consideration of the alternatives (possibly illustrating the chosen course of action as the most effective to allow for governors to carry out their duties to the college, given the circumstances).

Extension of governors' terms

  1. Re retiring Governors who have completed their full service - with no opportunity to go out and recruit new Governors - a University has received a Charity Commissioners reply re OK to roll over for 12 months existing Governors - as long as full audit trail of decisions by Corporation kept.
  2. Should Boards consider extending term of office for governors due to end in the next six months or so?

The response below applies to both queries:

The Commission’s reply in this area indicates a recognition that the circumstances are unprecedented and therefore an extension of a governor in the current circumstances would be better for effective governance than the alternative.

The AoC code states that members ‘should be appointed for a given term’ and ‘should not normally serve for more than two terms (or a maximum of eight years)’. It is fair to assume that any agency applying scrutiny to a decision to extend for a specified period in these circumstances would recognise that these are not normal times. This action is therefore in line with the AoC code. Caveats around this would be:

  • In line with the Charity Commission’s guidance, maintaining a clear audit trail around the decision
  • Ensuring the term is extended with a specified end date and the commitment to appoint a new member as soon as possible after the term has ended.
  • That the board can articulate general good governance practices (e.g. a review of member terms should further evidence that this was a measure taken as a response to an unprecedented crisis) and can show that it has effective strategies for board recruitment.

    By having a select group of governors with special powers, as mentioned previously, does this exclude the other governors?

    Any provision or mechanism established for decision-making in exceptional circumstances should not be used to bypass or supersede the effective challenge and strategic oversight role of the board as a collective entity. Many college governing documents already have provisions for exceptional circumstances and any change should take account of what would be permissible.

    For best practice, crisis decision-making provisions would be in line with governing documents and be limited to situations where an urgent decision is needed, and it is not possible to access the normal channels. It is vital that colleges plan for the eventuality that, due to illness or other reasons (occasioned by this or a future crisis), it may be impossible to convene the full board and make use of the normal governance arrangements. All such mechanisms would normally need to be approved by the board and so where there are legitimate concerns about how the powers or arrangements may be applied, these should be discussed and addressed.

    Please note that where it is at all possible to have full board meetings, effective governance (and the principles of good governance encapsulated in the AoC Code and Charity Commission guidance) would dictate that this would be the decision-making avenue used. 

    What approach are colleges taking to Furloughing of staff?

    We are working on developing a series of webinars containing case studies from colleges. One of the areas we are hoping to address is practical responses to staffing issues (such as furloughing and dealing with staff well-being).

    What extra support is out there for principals who are under tremendous strain?

    Another area we would like to address in our upcoming series of webinars is how college boards can provide (and are providing) support for their CEO/principals. AoC also launched the leadership exchange in March 2020, which has details of a number of experienced principals and their contact details, all of whom are happy to act as sounding boards during the current crisis.  Area Directors and the policy team also continue to offer regular one to one telephone calls for principals, providing a confidential source of support, listening to issues, referring to guidance where this exists, in addition to having an offer of weekly online network meetings to enable principals to share issues, practice and thinking with their peers whilst policy makers work as swiftly as they can to provide clear frameworks.  Further support is currently being offered by the Further Education Commissioner team who have offered a more supportive approach to reviewing finances and giving guidance.  The biggest support mechanism for principals will be their board and senior team, as every college’s circumstances will be unique and decisions will need to be made within the context of what is best for students, staff, the local community and stakeholders, often without concrete guidance from government, it is therefore essential that the board support the senior team in making decisions in this environment and provide oversight and leadership.

    The sector needs a very clear set of requests to Government and regulatory bodies that is based on data and College buy in, what mechanisms are the AoC putting in place to deliver this?

    Please refer to the weekly letters which have been sent to DfE and ESFA (these have been signposted in our daily COVID-19 alerts and can be found on the AoC website.  These requests are based on overwhelming feedback from members via Area Directors, our COVID19@aoc.co.uk inbox, direct discussion with principals and we have been regularly consulting (at pace) with members feeding back through these channels, including the weekly principals’, FDs and curriculum and quality, HR professionals’ and Clerks’ network meetings, individual calls and emails, in additional to policy group discussions to ensure the asks are based on data and the general views of members.  We anticipate that as immediate concerns are responded to (16-19 funding, AEB funding, assessment for both academic and vocational/technical qualifications) more medium-term issues can be gathered with clear data and evidence collected.  AoC will be sending out a survey over the next week to gather views and data on these longer-term issues faced by colleges regarding the crisis to inform the direction of travel beyond an initial, very fast-paced, response to address immediate concerns.

    Will the government relax regulations about progression and retention and other SLAs in this environment?

    It has been confirmed that NARTs and performance tables will not be published in 2020/21 to recognise the disruption to study for students over this period: we are urging Ofsted not to begin inspection (with the exception of cases where there is a safeguarding concern) until Jan 2021 at the earliest: all data regarding progression and retention (and indeed work experience as a CoF) will need to be considered within the context of the COVID-19 emergency, we will work with DfE, ESFA and Ofsted to ensure these issues are raised.  Assurances have been made regarding 16-18 funding until the end of the academic year, with adjustments made to funding formula to ensure the current crisis does not impact on this funding line for lagged purposes in 2021/22.  Similarly AEB (unless colleges predicted a significant underspend in February 2020) will be paid on profile until the end of the academic year.

    Have you any feel for how this will impact the introduction of T Levels. We are a lead college and expecting to deliver from this autumn?

    Having consulted with a number of 2020 T level providers, there are mixed views about how tenable it is to start delivery in Autumn 2020 (and how this might be started online should colleges remain closed).  There will clearly be challenges on some pathways around finding suitable placements given many SMEs will be focussed on re-establishing their businesses, some capital work or purchases may not have been completed in time for this Autumn.  Our ask of DfE at the moment is that 2020 providers be supported in making the right decision for their students, community and individual circumstances, that some may choose to deliver all pathways approved, some may choose to deliver some, for others they may decide to defer to 2021 and should in no way be penalised for this.  We will update once DfE’s line has been announced.

    We need to postpone capital repayments on loans from our Bank and the ESFA. How can this be best achieved?

    Contact your regional lead at ESFA as early as possible to discuss this.

    Is there any indication that the start of the academic year is likely to be referred or is it currently thought that the restrictions will be sufficiently lifted to start at the beginning of September?

    There is no clear guidance or indication of when lockdown processes will be relaxed or indeed, when schools and colleges may re-open.  This will be dependent on variables which are difficult to predict for government.