The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Governance at Scale

I won’t pretend to be a governance expert, but I’ve served on the body of an independent school, as the chair of a single Academy trust, now as a chair of an LGB, as a trustee and member of a large MAT, and also on the board of a national education charity. So I’ve seen a lot happen: and my opinions are drawn on that basis.

The main difference is the scale of the institution. As an independent school governor, there was no discussion of SATs, but quite a lot of discussion about the quality of cricket teas. But what the independent school, the standalone free school, and the LGB all have in common is they are very place based. The discussions are bounded by a small number of pupils, one site, and one staff body. (From my experience of observing LA maintained GB discussions, they are similar to that as well.)

If I contrast that to the Board of the MAT, the whole context is totally different. Astrea has several thousand pupils, and over a thousand members of staff across almost thirty schools spread across 2 RSC regions and several Local Authorities. Obviously it also has a local system of governance underpinning that, and also regional link governance. But when it comes to the Trust Board meetings, discussions are around activity across a scale that bears very little relation to a single school discussion.

Overall I’m a huge fan of MATs and the opportunities they bring to the system. There was, after all, a reason why I wanted to take a successful (financially and educationally) standalone free school into a large MAT – I recognise the huge advantages that this structure can bring to schools within it. These include wonderful opportunities for staff recruitment, development, and retention. One of the most exciting things I got involved in as a Trustee was our strategy to make us an employer of choice. We were able to address issues like – can we design specific Astrea teacher training programmes with a partner university? How best can we use Apprenticeships and in particular for our TAs? What does an Astrea specific career look like; what are the pathways; and how do we keep great teachers in classrooms who want to stay there? I also see the exceptional talent we can attract at senior levels in school improvement and in broader services and the way in which that in turn helps grow and develop our own talent all the way through the organisation. We know from our own staff surveys that this is the thing which our staff most value about being in a MAT. Less visible, but equally important, are the financial efficiencies and choices we can make in tight spending times – and the ways these can be redeployed into pupil experiences like the Astrea Promise (our idea first, Damian Hinds…..), and the Astrea Olympics.

But from a system perspective, I think there are some challenges around governance at Trust level which have to be addressed. One is the nuts and bolts of deciding what to focus on. This is more than good clerking and having a good paper flow. Trustees need to be able to take a view on: what the right agenda is, where the issues should be discussed between the Astrea Executive Board, the LGBs, the Trust wide committees, and the main Trust Board – and then for each discussion, be able to have a view on what supporting data do we need, what questions do we need to ask, what decisions do we need to make. This needs an exceptional chair – who should in my view be paid – and serious Trustees, and also processes to ensure we visit as many schools as we can over the course of the year and get to know some of the principals at a minimum. It’s very tough to get right – and I’m very sure we don’t always do it.

But when it comes to the Trust board meetings, discussions are around activity across a scale that bears very little relation to a single school discussion.

Jonathan Simons

It also takes time, and that’s my second challenge. To give you a very practical example, the main Astrea board meets 4 times a year, for 3 hours a time. Committees also meet 4 times a year, for 2 hours at a time – and often committees run back to back to maximise efficiency. That means for me, effectively 8 half days – during the working week – taken up with Trust business. And that’s with use of technology that means Yorkshire based Trustees don’t always travel to London and vice versa. I’d be lying if I said I always made these meetings, or that they were always my top priority. And I don’t think we’re out of the norm. I was talking to another large MAT a couple of months ago. Their meetings are 6 hours long, 6 times a year (with no committees). This simply isn’t remotely practical for anyone who has a full time job, and it’s a massive problem.

I think a smaller number of highly skilled Boards, all covering multiple schools – and supported by local governance including parental and staff representation – is the right way to manage the system. But this only works with a clearer sense of the MAT Trustee role, and mandatory Trustee development and training. Otherwise all we’re doing is scaling problems.