Learn from the aviation, track compliance to manage risk

Compliance and risk management are ever on the mind of SBMs – what can your governing body do to support you? Ian Armitage, chair of SGOSS Governors for Schools, discusses how governing bodies can learn from other industries and improve their attitude to compliance and risk management

Ian Armitage
Ian Armitage, chair of SGOSS Governors for Schools
Fortunately, our schools don’t appear to have been affected by recent cases of outdated software allowing blackmailers to install malware on servers, but this is not a reason to be complacent. A similar failure could happen if schools fail to keep their software up-to-date and to manage many other risks.
In an effort to support school improvement schools must comply with between 60 and 80 statutory requirements. However, the question remains: why do we fail to manage risks even when we think we comply with regulations and recommendations?
A good answer can be found in Mathew Syed’s book, Black Book Thinking, in which he contrasts healthcare and the legal professions with aviation. In our healthcare system more people die from mistakes made by doctors and hospitals than from traffic accidents. Aviation, on the other hand, ‘…has created an astonishingly good safety record because mistakes are learned from, rather than concealed’. He arrives at the positive – and common-sense – conclusion that, ‘Success can only happen when we confront our mistakes.’

If you focus on one thing, you will lose awareness of other things

Improving the odds against failure

Syed points to two behavioural barriers that must be overcome; attention and cognitive dissonance.
Busy teachers under pressure have many things on their minds. Syed notes that one obstacle to effective risk management is the mind’s tendency to cut things out. ‘Attention is a scarce resource; if you focus on one thing, you will lose awareness of other things.’
Further, we are all aware of the well-established phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. This occurs, ‘…when mistakes are too threatening to admit to, so they are reframed or ignored. This can be thought of as the internal fear of failure: how we struggle to admit mistakes to ourselves.’

Systems which track risks and compliance with actions to monitor, mitigate and improve processes clearly address the awareness problem

The affect on school governance

So how can we translate this into school governance? Syed suggests that a cornerstone of success is a progressive attitude to failure. ‘Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.’ In practice, this means, ‘…creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.’
Systems which track risks and compliance with actions to monitor, mitigate and improve processes clearly address the awareness problem. Moreover, providing they are used, they help build the right culture because every item includes an element of reporting, review, analysis and initiatives to improve.
When examining risk management, you should seek a system with the following features:

  • Comprehensive – so nothing is missed
  • Easy and inexpensive to use – the less time to load and use data, the less excuses for failure to keep up-to-date
  • Allows for regular updates and access to external data feeds – regulations change all the time
  • Allocates clear responsibility to manage the task/risk with time-bound targets to assist follow-up and management
  • Transparent – allow many eyes to contribute and examine the data
  • Flexible – to adapt to change that is derived from experience.

In every organisation that I work with we have used a set of dials that ensure that every critical factor to the success of the organisation is captured and studied, insisting that the most critical dials are the most prominent on our ‘dashboard’.
The job of the governing board, and of the chair in particular, is to check that the organisation has the right dials, with the right prominence, and that the management team is not getting distracted by activity that may seem to be critical but which, when weighed against the rest, is not. The British army manual, studied carefully by its officers, insists that leaders do all they can to, ‘keep the main thing the main thing’. Boards should guarantee that this is happening in schools.

SGOSS Governors for Schools is a charitable enterprise offering a free governor search and selection service for schools keen to bolster the existing skills of their Boards of Governors by recruiting candidates with commercial experience.
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