The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

The importance of governance 

A new school year presents us with the perfect opportunity to set out priorities and build on existing developments, to ensure every child receives an excellent education, and leaves school able to make their way successfully in the world.

Within the wider education landscape, the multi-academy trust (MAT) model is a powerful vehicle for improving schools. Trusts can perform a vital role in turning round schools that need additional support and I have seen some great examples of this over the past year. As of March 2018, 86 per cent of schools in England are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and virtually all MATs in a recent DfE survey (96 per cent) believe their structure has facilitated collaboration – most have formal relationships with schools outside their trust.

However, there is more to do and I believe there are two key areas that will continue to be pivotal in raising educational achievement and standards: ensuring high quality governance and securing robust financial management.

Transition and change

With more than a third of state-funded primary and secondary schools and nearly half of all pupils now part of academy trusts, the model is more prevalent than ever in the wider education community. A consequence of schools choosing to transition to academy status or expansion of existing MATs, is that governance will need to change to reflect the new and additional responsibilities it has. This inevitably involves recognising the challenges, but also the benefits, around delegation, leadership and the business expertise involved in governing larger organisations.

As the MAT grows and changes, the nature of the work the board of trustees and local governing boards undertakes will change substantially. For example, if a trust expands, there will be an increasing need to ensure oversight and decision-making is in place so that the board can undertake its accountability role effectively.

Conversion or expansion means that boards must become more accountable for both financial and educational performance, recognising that the level of challenge to school leaders will need to increase.

Engaging with the community

There are several ways governors and trustees can help manage trust growth or transition to a MAT. In MATs, whilst an overarching trust vision should be in place, the trust may decide that its academies retain their individual character including maintaining responsibility for local stakeholder engagement. However, this should not happen at the detriment of harnessing the power of centralised resources.

Parents and carers need to understand the trust’s structure and how they can contribute and provide input into their children’s education. It is important that parental engagement takes place through each school phase; be it primary or secondary school and that parents know the value of being part of a trust.

Having clear communication and delegation

Building a relationship that strikes the right balance between the broader oversight and expertise of the board of trustees, and the localised knowledge of governors at academy level can be challenging. Having a written scheme of delegation and monitoring systems is vital in ensuring roles and responsibilities are clear, and for trustees and governors to know exactly where their input and decision-making is most valuable.

For example, a trustee of the MAT board could attend a local governing board (LGB) meeting to maintain the links between the MAT board and the LGB to gain a deeper understanding of how these are working on the ground. Alternatively, it may be that a local governor attends the Trust board meeting.

It can also be useful for academy LGBs to get together and share ideas and best practice, as this can be hugely beneficial in building the trust’s community. This can help to ensure that the trust mantra is being implemented at academy level but also that local knowledge is fed back to the trust board to help form the strategic vision and direction.

It is for the trust board to identify the best way of working for their organisation and decide how the board can support local boards and vice versa. Good governance, therefore, involves a consistent and constructive two way conversation between trustees and governors and this is key to helping resolve issues involved in change or growth. This is a fundamental element of managing change or a new transition for a school or trust.

Academies are at the forefront of the ambitious programme of change that is underway in our country’s education system. We have the framework in place to deliver a first class education for all of our young people. However, for schools and trusts to perform at their best, strong governance and robust financial management needs to be at their core. Collaboration between trustees and governors is fundamental to securing this.