Virtual meetings are utilised by many companies and organisations as a convenient means to ensure attendance by individuals that may not be able to physically attend due to other commitments. There are already a number of governing and trust boards in Bolton that utilise this technology to support meetings, ensuring all of their members can take part in important discussions.
The ability to meet virtually has never been more important than during these unprecedented times of social distancing with the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. The following virtual meeting guidance is general and some points will not be applicable at this current time.
To attend or hold a virtual meeting, it is important that consideration be given to the hardware and software being used, for example, telephone voice calls, video conferencing or an online platform.
Often meetings physically take place and individuals that cannot make the meeting can join virtually using a previously agreed means. Other times the whole meeting might be virtual where everybody is joining the meeting from different locations.
It is important that whatever type of meeting is being held, all parties have the opportunity, the means and agree to the format of the meeting. Therefore, it is equally important to agree a set of protocols or procedures to how meetings will take place.
Virtual Meeting Participation for Governing and Trust Boards
The School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) Regulations allow a governing board to approve alternative arrangements for governors to participate or vote at meetings of the governing board, including but not limited to telephone or video conference.
The requirements still stand to ensure that the meeting remains quorate for decisions to be made and that all decisions are to be determined by a vote.
Academy and Multi-Academy Trust Boards
The Articles of Association for each academy and multi-academy trust board detail the arrangement for any trustee to be able to participate in meetings of the trust board by telephone or video conferencing provided that:
- The trustee has given notice of his/her intention to do so
- Provided a telephone number on which he/she can be reached and/or appropriate details of the video conference suite from which he/she shall be taking part at the time of the meeting
- Provide details at least 48 hours before the meeting; and the trustees have access to the appropriate equipment
- If after all reasonable efforts, it does not prove possible for the person to participate by telephone or video conference the meeting may still proceed with its business provided it is otherwise quorate.
Procedures for Local Governing Boards / Advisory Councils are to be determined by the Trust and should be reflected in the terms of reference for these boards and committees.
Technology & Equipment
Virtual meetings and participation are clearly dependent on technology and an individual’s ability to access this. A large majority of governors and trustees will have access to an internet enabled device such as a PC, laptop and tablet, some of which will have built in cameras and microphones. Smartphones also support the function for both video and voice conferencing. If users don’t have any of the above hardware, then it might be permissible for them to dial into the meeting; however, this might attract a charge for the call which should be checked with the appropriate call provider.
In terms of software, there are various systems on the market to aid virtual meetings and conferencing. Schools tend to have their chosen software, for example, in Bolton we have found that Zoom and Microsoft Teams seem to be the most popular. Following requests from our boards and schools, we have provided some instructions on how to use both the Microsoft Teams and Zoom software and set up an account, which may be downloaded below. Please note that Bolton Governance Services does not endorse or guarantee any particular platform or software.
Technology – Top Tips
- All members should be clear on how to use the chosen system and agreed protocols should be in place to advise how and in what circumstances the school intends to operate virtual meetings.
- Consideration needs to be given on what hardware or software will be required and whether there are any cost implications to the school and/or individuals (Governors and trustees should not be adversely affected financially).
- Ensure the school’s internet and wi-fi infrastructure is fit for purpose.
- Thought should be given on what will happen if the system fails. It may be useful to have someone at the meeting that can communicate with participants via email or telephone in case of service disruption.
- Before your first meeting takes place do a test or dry run.
- Make sure you can hear all participants clearly. It is might be useful for participants joining the meeting remotely to ‘mute’ their microphone if they are not speaking in order to reduce background noise.
- Ensure everyone understands what will be discussed and also have access to the documentation before hand – most Board’s in Bolton utilise the secure Bolton Governance Gateway system.
- It may be good to have somebody who is technical minded available on hand or close by to assist if there are any problems.
- Governance Services does not recognise communication via email as a virtual meeting and decisions are not recommended via this means. Emailing is not a reliable medium for instant communication especially for voting and may restrict a persons participation. Emails sent generally to gain peoples thoughts or ideas are definitely useful outside of meetings, as long as these are secure.
Preparing for the Meeting
As with any meeting, but particularly for a virtual meeting, it is important to always have a clear agenda. Remember statutory governance time-frames in terms of meeting notification and documentation circulation must be adhered to. Your Clerk to Governors would undertake this as usual. The Chair with the Clerk should choose timings carefully, consider breaks or if participants are only attending for a specific item. It is important to be clear on who will be attending both in person and virtually.
During the Meeting
It is important that everyone’s views can be clearly expressed and that participants speak clearly and concisely if using video or telephone conferencing. Through the Chair, participants should always identify themselves when joining a meeting and/or wish to speak. The Chairs role is crucial in supporting the meeting.
Participants joining the meeting virtually should consider limiting background noises and remove any potentially distracting background activities. When not speaking, it is always useful practice to ‘mute’ the microphone. Confidentiality is also an important factor to consider, that is, can anyone else hear you in your workplace, household etc. Being in a location away from others and the use of headphones could be helpful to reduce this risk.
Voting should be very clear, and it might be useful to agree a practice of voting as part of your protocols. It may be that the Chair or Clerk ask each governor to cast their vote individually, so that votes can be counted, and the decision correctly recorded in the minutes. To ensure privacy, the voting on a particularly contentious issue could be made via a direct message service to the Clerk at the time of the meeting.
Minutes of meetings must still be taken in the normal way and your Clerk will usually be at the meeting to do this. If the meeting is entirely virtual, the Chair should ensure that they liaise with the Clerk fully as to the meeting protocol.
It is not normal practice for meetings to be recorded. Your Clerk should be able to take the minutes in the normal way as long as the meeting is chaired effectively.
Virtual meetings are not intended as a replacement for holding physical meetings. The usual personal interactions and understandings of individuals feelings are sometimes lost when people are not together in one room. They can however be extremely useful for those occasions when its not possible to meet together or if an individual wants to link into a meeting from another location.
If you are interested in undertaking virtual meetings, would like to discuss virtual meeting protocols or would like further general information, please contact your Clerk to the Board in the first instance.
A set of model protocols are available to download below for Governing and Trust Board’s to adapt to their needs.