Governance during COVID-19
- Over the past few weeks, I have worked with a number of organisations to assess the risk of their operating, in a world with COVID-19. Some of those organisations are concerned with child safety, some with employee safety, and some with patient safety. Whilst these concerns have all been valid and at the heart of decision making, approaches have been different. As the Chair of a number of Audit and Risk Committees, I thought it might be useful to explain some of the differences in approach to assessing risk I have encountered.
In the Education sector, there is much debate about whether the science supports the government’s decision to allow children back to school, and if so, how best to follow that guidance. At one extreme one could follow the Department for Education direction ‘blindly’ and just open the school doors and let the children in. Whilst supporting a clear belief that education is paramount and children should not be deprived of it, the Audit and Risk Committee, or the Trustees, that approve this would not be properly performing their function, and could potentially be putting those children, those children's families, and their colleagues at the school at a higher state of risk than needed.
At the other extreme, the schools that do not allow children back, spend weeks trying to mitigate all risk and go beyond the guidance, may be seen to be preventing those children from having the education they deserve, and on occasions leaving them in a riskier place than if they were in school.
The guidance from Gavin Williamson and the Department for Education is clear: schools should make arrangements for a phased return to school by year groups, and put in place protective measures to reduce risks.
For some trusts this is the starting point. The decision taken by the government to allow children back to school based on the evidence presented to them, is not to be questioned. The assessment then required by the trust is whether the guidance is being followed, whether the layout of the school facilitates social distancing, whether there are enough staff; both teaching and support, etc. to sufficiently mitigate risk.
The underlying risks cannot be totally removed. Even with extensive mitigating actions there will still be some residual risk. The question for the trustees is whether sufficient work has been done to avoid those risks which can be avoided, and to manage those risks remaining.
The discussions that have taken place have been challenging and all sides of the above arguments have been made. This debate however, is to be welcomed, and makes for a more considered outcome. It also shows the passion of all concerned to properly assess the risks and to take their roles extremely seriously. These different views are not all right or all wrong, they are just different.
This is a difficult balance, and relies heavily on the experience and passion of the executive and senior leadership teams in the trusts to provide a coherent plan. Thankfully, I have seen that leadership in the organisations within which I operate, allowing the Board to review well thought through risk assessments and return to school plans.
There will be challenges ahead, but we can rest assured, that we have the best teams in place, and good leadership, to steer us through them.
"[This debate] shows the passion of all concerned to properly assess the risks and to take their roles extremely seriously. These different views are not all right or all wrong, they are just different."