The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Key Challenges in MAT Governance

Governance in MATs is an evolving beast – rightfully so, because if it continued to function only as it did before, we’d be doing our schools a disservice. As with anything however, people are resistant to change. We should do something because it’s the right thing to do, not because that’s the way it’s always been done. I’ve been involved in multiple governance reviews over the last year and spoken to a large number of MATs, and while every MAT has its own unique governance issues, there are common challenges bubbling beneath the surface.

There is too much duplication between tiers and the executive. MATs operate very differently, with a level of executive support that doesn’t exist in the maintained sector. Ofsted reports are starting to reflect that the executive is part of the governance structure and references to the executive team are appearing in the governance section.

There is also a balance to be struck with the right levels and methods of communication between Trust and LGBs. The change of line management further complicates this. If the head is line managed by the CEO and supported by the chair, the trust needs to ensure the head and chair can have an open relationship of support and challenge, while still being able to raise any concerns about the head to the chair.

We are in this because we passionately believe in the charities we volunteer for and that if you can build a trust well, schools full of children and staff will have more support and more opportunities than they ever did before.

Tiffany Beck

I’m constantly looking at governance and asking what is the input versus the output, and crucially what is the impact? It is important to keep those questions in mind when looking at your own structure. It’s also important to keep reiterating that accountability sits with the trust board.

We need to think about workload and wellbeing and make sure we have the right people doing the right things, in order to ensure schools are moving forward and challenges are surfaced, whilst making it less onerous for everyone involved.

At Trust Board level, we are always refining how reporting looks, making sure we’re getting the information we need without drowning in detritus. I also want to make sure our school governors are able to use their time to maximum impact.

For our staff – I constantly have their workload and wellbeing on my mind. I worry about the effect that data and marking can have and we are trying to streamline this to ensure people aren’t being asked to just weigh the pig. I worry the new Ofsted framework will move towards an obsession over work in books and the workload fallout that will result. I worry about the stress of headteachers – I work closely with our heads and I know the toll the job takes emotionally, mentally and physically, much of which is down to an extreme accountability system and audit culture.

As Trustees we also need to safeguard our CEOs. The level of accountability and responsibility on their shoulders is unfathomable. I heard someone describe it as like playing an endless game of ‘whack-a-mole’ — just constantly trying to stamp out one crisis after another. We need to ensure that we are creating the environment they need to be able to unload problems, be open about worries, and to know that we are all fighting to get it right together.

Governance won’t ever be the panacea to completely crack education. We need money – £5.7 billion more in the next school year according to ASCL in order to provide a basic level of service. That doesn’t take into account the ‘little extras’ or all of the things schools are expected to solve in society today. We also need people. You can’t have good schools without good teachers in front of the children and good headteachers leading the schools, supported in a MAT by a trust team that enables them to focus on teaching and learning.

If you’re a trustee, especially if you’re chair, find counterparts in other trusts you can talk to. We are responsible for ensuring the sustainable development of charitable organisations in the midst of an unfriendly media, a seemingly insurmountable funding crisis, and a recruitment and retention crisis with no apparent end in sight. I met a trust chair through twitter recently and we spoke on the phone. We were both dealing with huge challenges, but it was so good to be able to talk with someone about the stress of the role and what is expected of us as volunteers.

Lastly, as Trustees we need to help take control of the message. We need to speak up about why it’s better as a trust, why problems in trusts are not unique to our corner of education, and why we are willing to give up so much time and energy and subject ourselves to the often emotional and mental toll that it takes. We are in this because we passionately believe in the charities we volunteer for and that if you can build a trust well, schools full of children and staff will have more support and more opportunities than they ever did before. I never forget for one moment the responsibility on my shoulders. I also never forget what it’s like to be part of turning a school around, or every single tiny win along the path of building an organisation I’m proud of, alongside trustees and a CEO I’m also very proud of.