School governors work with a lot of sensitive information, and it’s vital that they understand the importance of keeping it confidential. Ray Moore, addresses how governing board clerks can get the message across.
The Governance Handbook makes it clear that schools’ governing boards must set out what they expect of their members – particularly when (or before) they first join – and have a code of conduct that clearly defines their role and behaviour.
Confidentiality is one of the key themes of the National Governance Association’s widely-used Model Code of Conduct. This states that governors must:
- Keep to themselves all matters that the board deems confidential and that concern specific members of staff or pupils, inside or outside school
- Always be cautious when discussing school / trust business outside a governing board meeting
- Not reveal the details of any governing board vote
- Hold and dispose of all confidential papers appropriately.
Thankfully, breaches of confidentiality are rare, but they can happen – sometimes accidentally, sometimes by design. It can be easy to let your guard down in casual conversation or on social media but, no matter what the circumstances are, a breach could be grounds for removing a governor from the board.
Clerks play a crucial role in safeguarding against such breaches. They can add confidentiality to the board agenda, giving the Chair an opportunity to remind board members of their obligations. A good time is at the first meeting of the school year, when board members usually sign the code of conduct. When governors explicitly agree to the code of conduct, the Governance Handbook says that it creates “a common reference point should any difficulties arise in the future”.
Sometimes confidentiality is breached through indiscretion. Discussing this in a board meeting is an opportunity to remind governors that their expected conduct covers not just who they share information with but also where they share it and who might overhear them. For example, children might be privy to something that a parent (who’s also a governor) says at home, and not understand that they shouldn’t share the information with others.
Do you have an agreed procedure for circulating the minutes of confidential meetings? Has your data protection officer been involved in defining procedure? When you’re writing confidential minutes, it’s good practice to include a reminder about confidentiality – for example, by marking them “NOT FOR PUBLIC DISSEMINATION OR DISCUSSION”.
When you’re getting a set of public minutes signed off, it’s worth reminding the board that, by signing, they’re acknowledging that the minutes will be made public. Consider ending the minutes with: “Minutes agreed to be an accurate record of the meeting and approved for publication... Chair’s signature… Date.”
It can be easy to forget that the agreement to confidentiality continues even once a term of office ends. No governor, under any circumstances, should feel free to broadcast board proceedings to the wider public after they’ve resigned. There’s little you can do if this happens, of course, unless the matter involves issues covered by data protection legislation, but it’s worth ensuring that the code of conduct is explicit about the expectation of confidentiality extending beyond governors’ tenure.
Make it clear to them that breaking the confidentiality rule, even after leaving the board, could disqualify them from becoming a governor at another school.
When a governor steps down, it’s common practice for the clerk to send them a letter thanking them for their service on behalf of the board. This presents another opportunity to remind them of the need for continued confidentiality.
Effective governing boards are characterised by trust, which enables members to share essential information and ideas constructively. Without confidentiality, there can be no trust and this system breaks down.
Here are my seven top tips for making sure that sensitive information stays confidential:
- Ensure that the code of conduct covers confidentiality, and that it’s signed by every governor
- Make sure that governors understand that confidentiality continues after their term of office
- Have agreed procedures for dealing with confidential minutes
- When getting public minutes signed off, ensure that the board agrees that they’ve checked them and that no confidential matters are included
- Have each set of minutes approved for publication with the Chair’s signature
- Regularly remind governors to remain confidential and discreet about board matters
- Send a letter when a governor leaves the board, thanking them for their service and reminding them about their continuing obligation to maintain confidentiality.