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Holding to Account Effectively – Some Tips

The second core function of governance is made up of two elements which should, if we are to hold to account effectively, be closely aligned. If either element of the second function is weak then governance can reasonably be deemed to be ineffective. However, in the absence of externally verified data, due to the impact of Covid-19, we have an opportunity to refresh our thinking on what holding to account looks like in practice. It is very important that we do not stop holding to account because we are having on line meetings or because we can’t go into schools and undertake any visits. It could be argued that holding to account is actually more important than ever. 

Holding to account should not be an aggressive activity; it must be planned, evaluated and evidence kept. If your board is thinking of reviewing how it is holding to account perhaps you could ask the following questions. 

Does everyone round the table have the same understanding of what holding to account means? Take the opportunity ask everyone to share their definitions. It’s not a test! Don’t forget to ask the senior or executive leaders as well. 

Where and when does holding to account happen? One-off holding to account is not helpful (it could be construed to be aggressive) but planned, purposeful and thoughtful questions which are focused on the key matters over time mean that governors (and trustees) are being effective. Remember to keep notes and share with the other governors; use your minutes to show impact. 

How do you generate your questions? Are you reacting to information provided to you? Using information you have gathered through independent reading and research? From your virtual meetings and visits? Remember effective holding to account is not a linear process but is 3 or even 4D. Visualise a triangle or rectangle – what words or activities would you put at the points or corners of these shapes? Use these as cornerstones of your governance questions. Remember context and evidence are important factors. 

A quick Google search on a dictionary definition comes up with “To require a person to explain or to accept responsibility for his or her actions; to blame or punish someone for what has occurred’. This would seem a very harsh definition. 

A recent Twitter conversation asked for definitions from those in the world of governance. Here are some of the answers given which give food for thought. 

“Intent: What is the strategic vision, ethos & culture of our setting? Implementation: How do we monitor, develop, support & challenge this? How do we triangulate information? Impact: So what? How do we evidence this? Are we confident all stakeholders have been heard?” 

“In the broadest terms, did you do what you said you were going to do? If not why not? If yes, how did that work out?” 

“Are decisions being made in the best interests of the children and school community and in keeping with what we've agreed is important to move our school in the direction we'd all like?”

“Has what you did had the impact you expected? If not, why not? And what are you now going to do and why?”

 “…asking the right questions in an informed and appropriate way and not always accepting the first answer given if you don't feel it addresses your question. Remembering to remain strategic.” 

“1. Have you done what we delegated you to do? 2. How well did you do it? 3. What was the impact? 4. Could it be done better? 5. Was there value for money in what you did?” 

How would you define holding executive leaders to account? 

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