Rethinking the layout of the Governors Report

Rethinking the layout of the Governors' Report

Andrew Thomas, Partner, Social Purpose and Non Profit Organisations
Rethinking the layout of the Governors Report

COVID-19 and the relatively smooth switch the independent sector made to remote learning also served to highlight for some, the increasing gap in resourcing between the state and privately funded sectors, with the political question of independent school’s charitable status again being raised and coming under scrutiny.

Yet, what is not always as visible in the public eye, is how those restrictions also encouraged innovation, and better use of technology, with many fantastic examples of schools working in collaboration and sharing resources with the state sector and their local community.

There continues to be an expectation for transparency in charity reporting. Disclosure requirements and legislative change remain ever increasing. The challenge for independent schools is how to better utilise their Governors’ Report and accounts, to bring out the positive messaging around the school’s activities and their impact, but in a format that is compliant and easy to read and follow. 

The Governors' Report presents a real opportunity for schools to tell their story and to share key information with stakeholders and readers. This article considers how by taking some simple steps to declutter and revisit the reports layout, schools can enhance the message and impact of their Governors' Report.

Decluttering the accounts

Think quality not quantity. A common error is including too much information, more detail rarely equates to a more informative and better written report. Before writing, take last year’s report and ask:

  • Who is my audience? Who will be reading and using the Governors' Report? What do they need to see and understand and what are the key messages I want them to take away?
  • Is there any content a reader can access elsewhere? Think annual review, information on your website, production of a separate annual review. Is the current level of detail necessary?
  • Which areas of the report could I present more succinctly? Does the report include information that is not required? For example, on risk management the focus should be on the major risks the School faces and these should link into your risk register.
  • Is there a better way to present the information? When used well, graphs, tables, diagrams and infographics break up the text and can help present information more succinctly. Would this work for my set of accounts and report?
  • Are there areas of the report where the signposting can be improved? Is the report easy to follow and navigate between sections and does the narrative tie in with and fully explain the financial numbers and movements? Any areas where better signposting can reduce the risk of repetition?

Layout of the Report

How the Governors’ Report is laid out and structured plays a critical part in engaging the reader. All too often school accounts are seen as a compliance document, often following a standard template which whilst including required disclosures places less focus on the order and messaging. Opportunities to engage with the reader can therefore be missed with the inclusion of information on the school’s governance structure at the beginning of the report for example, making it harder to identify and connect with the more important discussions around performance and public benefit provision which are often lost further back in the report.

To make a greater impact, discussions of the school’s achievements and wider public benefit should appear earlier in the report. An alternative way to present the Governors' Report could be:

  • Statement from the Chair of Governors
  • Charitable Aims and Objectives (Who we are and what we do)
  • Achievements and Performance
  • Financial Review
  • Governance

The advantage of this layout is the inclusion of clear sub headings making it easier for a reader to see where particular information is grouped together in the report.

Many charities are now laying out their Trustees Report with the Governance Section at the end. Whilst this section includes required disclosures on how the organisation operates, it is unlikely to be the first thing that a reader will want to know and understand about a charity or school and can detract from the main message and focus. With an increase in legislative disclosures likely to continue, there is also the benefit, particularly for larger schools, of grouping newer requirements, such as section 172 disclosures and carbon reporting, under one clear heading.

A statement from the Chair of Governors and/or the Principal is starting to become more common in school accounts and is a good way to ensure a positive introduction, drawing the reader’s attention and providing a high-level summary of achievements in the year as well as providing an opportunity to thank staff and pupils.

The SORP requires charities to disclose their charitable objectives, aims for the year and strategies to achieve this. But also consider what are your core values, what are the benefits of an independent education at your school and how can this be summarised in your report?

At the heart of a school’s message and story are the achievements and performance – the provision of public benefit and what the school has achieved. How this information is presented is therefore important. This section sometimes suffers from the inclusion of too much detail. Focus should be on the principal points and how they are presented. There are many excellent examples in charity accounts of diagrams and infographics being used to present information visually. Presenting for example a series of key facts and messages visually on a single page is far more likely to attract and resonate with a reader. Think whether this could improve the presentation of exam results/ performance, extra-curricular highlights, bursary support and examples of public benefit.

Many schools which are charitable companies, must present a strategic report. Commonly accounts disclose the directors report first and strategic report second. However, the presentation can be swapped to start with the strategic report. The report also does not need to flow as one distinct report. Elements such as risk management can be disclosed elsewhere in the report, as long as there is clear referencing.

The question, who are the readers of my accounts, is often asked. In the current climate there are many, from parents and other stakeholders to those who perhaps do not support the sector in the most helpful way. Getting a clear and critical message across has never been more important.

Independent Schools Newsletter - Autumn/Winter 2021

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Andrew Thomas
Andrew Thomas
Partner, Social Purpose and Non Profits