The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

More than compliance

“Governance” is not a word or topic that typically sets the pulse racing. However, we all know that effective governance practice is critical to the success of your trust

System leadership on governance

Today, too often, it appears that governance is viewed through a relatively narrow compliance mind-set. This is not just an issue confined to the education sector, though perhaps it is currently more pronounced because of the intense focus on governance by the Department and the increasingly detailed policy requirements and guidance documents it publishes on the subject. Yes ensuring compliance is an important aspect of good governance, but it goes much wider than that.

When the academies programme was expanded in 2010 there was significant debate over whether all of the advertised freedoms were genuine freedoms. Putting that debate to one side for a moment, you can make a persuasive case that the freedom to innovate in governance was perhaps a freedom that was missing from the list. The best trusts certainly have taken the opportunity presented but for many governance has been viewed predominantly through the compliance lens.

The focus and drive from government on governance in the sector is not going to lessen. In the Secretary of State’s statement in May on the principles for an accountability system it included at the very end:

And we will focus on how we can improve the effectiveness of governance in the sector more generally, including at MAT level.

Before the initiative is completely lost, it is important that the sector more actively promotes effective governance – if it is directed through regulation and policy there is a danger that governance will continue to be viewed through a compliance mind-set. Naturally, the Department will need to set out clear expectations on effective governance and intervene where governance means a trust fails. However, it is important that trusts take control of the narrative and actively participate in and promote system leadership on governance. The danger is that if this does not happen then there will be increasing prescription from the centre.

Internal reflections

There are many interesting questions you can explore as a board when reflecting on your governance practice. I will briefly offer three here which I believe are relevant to consider whatever stage you are at.

First, what is the purpose of governance at our Trust?

The answer may at first appear obvious but through experience all too often the answer is assumed. Governance and boards have existed for hundreds of years but still, when you dig under the rhetoric, there can be a lack of a common and precise understanding of the purpose of governance and what a board is for. By talking about this in your trust you can help avoid the dangers of poor alignment between trustees, or between trustees and the executive and/or in the case of MATs between the board and local governance. Having a greater shared understanding as a board here will only enhance the governance practice in your trust.

Secondly, are we a learning organisation and how do we know?

The MAT model provides significant opportunities to harness organisational learning to directly impact on effectiveness of educational provision at the trust. Do your governance systems and practices identify, promote and support organisational learning?

Finally, how do we evaluate the effectiveness of the board?

It is widely accepted that evaluating the board’s effectiveness is a key element of good governance. Whilst external reviews of governance can be a very effective part of a diagnostic process where there are problems with governance in a trust, they should also be considered even when things appear to be going well. It is worth reflecting on the recommendation from the UK Governance Code for FTSE 350 companies that every three years the board should have an externally‐facilitated board evaluation disclosing in the annual report the outcomes and actions taken as a result of the review. Getting the scope of the external review right will be critical. For example, in addition to the obvious areas you would want a review to focus on (for example, the effectiveness of the Board in overseeing educational provision) you may also want the review to consider how the Board is viewed by key stakeholders (regulators, local communities, parents, staff etc).

In the final analysis, at the heart of quality governance practice is effective communication and human relationships – things that can interest and engage us all.