All clerks can tell you what an agenda is, but do we all understand the part that a well drafted agenda can play in making meetings more efficient and effective?
Consider this situation which a friend encountered as he arrived to clerk a termly board meeting: on the staffroom table lay several piles of paper. Some were the reports which failed to be issued with the agenda. Among them, he noticed an agenda, which differed from the one which had been published a few days ago. Then, he noticed that not all of the papers lying on the table were listed even on the new agenda. His heart sank, as he sensed impending chaos. But it got worse. When the Chair had taken apologies for absence, the Headteacher asked if two presentation items could be dealt with as next business, in order to release staff who need not stay for the whole meeting. These items were not on the agenda either. Few people seemed to know what was going to happen next. Towards the end of an intense and sometimes chaotic meeting, the Head tabled a report which ran to six pages of closely typed script, attached to which were three pages of Excel spreadsheets. To the surprise of everybody except the Chair, this report gave details of the annual staff performance appraisals, with each member of staff listed, along with recommendations for pay increases (or not). The staff governor (also named in the report) was sitting right there in the meeting….
Proper agenda planning, led by the correct person, at the correct time, would have avoided this horror story (and, trust me, such things really do happen).
A simple but important demarcation will help us here: the headteacher runs the school, but the chair runs the board. Therefore it is the chair who is responsible for setting the agenda, in consultation with the headteacher and the clerk. And the clerk can help the chair in this task, although too many schools seem reluctant to draw upon their clerk’s experience and knowledge, and lose out thereby.
The key to getting it right is for the chair (in consultation with the head and the clerk) to start drafting the agenda for the next meeting soon after the previous one has taken place, picking up all those matters which need to be carried forward. The formalities, with which routine Board agendas begin, do not change from meeting to meeting; namely, apologies for absence, declarations of interest, minutes of the previous meeting, and matters arising from the minutes. But what should come next? Many schools will try to arrange the rest of the agenda to reflect the importance of the items of business, and often put the headteacher’s report very high up. Other regular reports, such as about the work of board committees, policies, the question of whether to join a MAT, and safeguarding will be listed according to their strategic importance, as well as the amount of time which needs to be devoted to them. Matters which need to be reported for information, and on which little discussion is expected or required, can be placed at or near the end, in a section some organisations call “the consent agenda”.
Needless to say, no item should appear on the agenda more than once, so if it is covered in the head’s report, do not list it separately. Items should not be included unless there is a clear intention to discuss them. Too often, you will find an item included “just in case”. This betrays a lack of forethought. Similarly, there should very seldom be a need to add items to the agenda at the meeting. If there is genuine urgency, the Chair should always be consulted in advance, and never bounced at the meeting into accepting late items. As for “Any other business”, instead of allowing it to be the catch-all for items which people could not be bothered to add to the agenda in a timely manner, this should generally be reserved for matters of little consequence, which require no discussion. Good governance protocol would allow items of any other business to be brought up only if they had been cleared with the chair at least three days before the meeting.
Smart chairs (aided by their clerks) will develop and use an annual board business planner, so that they have a clear guide to when key items need to be timetabled. Examples of these are being developed helpfully by Entrust, and organisations like it. Academies will of course turn to the Academies Planning Calendar produced by the DfE. This approach greatly assists proper planning and preparation of reports, avoids last minute panics when papers are due, and gives assurance that business is being done systematically.
Some think that board meetings should seldom last for more than two hours. Whether or not that is true, one means of concentrating minds on efficient use of board time is to indicate on the agenda the time at which each item is expected to begin, or for how long consideration of each item should last. Whilst “timed agendas” should not be used to inhibit legitimate discussion, they might discourage governors from prolonging matters when there is no more to be gainfully said, and it can garner support for the chair in his or her efforts to keep the meeting moving at pace. (Incidentally, in my opinion the clerk has no business trying to dictate the length of the meeting, or the time at which it will end).
In summary, a good agenda is simply a statement of intent: “at the next meeting these are the matters to be discussed.” It is essential for governors to know in advance which topics are to be considered, and to have a good idea of why they have been placed on the agenda. There should be no surprises (or shocks) when they get to the meeting. The more time spent before each meeting in careful preparation, the more effective the meeting is likely to be. Whilst the primary responsibility for this rests with the chair, the clerk can undoubtedly play a valuable part in helping to ensure agendas are well prepared.
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