The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

The time to chair

Chairs of multi academy trusts (MATs) are spending an average of fifty days per year – or approximately one day a week – carrying out the role, recent new research from the National Governance Association (NGA) revealed.  This is well above the twenty days per year which practice from the charity sector suggests is required for chairs of boards of trustees.

The survey of 93 MAT chairs explored the time spent on different activities, their own employment status, and how that experience helps them in their governing duties. 92.5% of respondents reported that a flexible working pattern was important in enabling them to carry out their chairing duties. Chairs who were retired from their own employment were likely to spend more time governing, especially in terms of time spent meeting with trust executives.

Carrying out other functions added to the time chairs were spending. Almost three-quarters were also a member of the trust and spending not inconsiderable time on that function (17 hours a year).  Half of the chairs of trust boards also governed at academy level; this added a considerable time commitment, an average of over 100 hours a year.  Avoiding these other roles would not just make volunteering to chair the trust board more sustainable, but would also constitute much better practice.  Strong governance requires separation between the layers (members, trustees and academy level) in a MAT.  Communication across the MAT can be managed in other ways without the conflicts and blurring of accountability that this duplication causes.

The size of the trust wasn’t the most significant factor in determining the quantity of the time it takes to chair the board; yet there are some interesting differences in terms of the duties and responsibilities undertaken by chairs of larger and smaller MATs which will be explored further in the second phase of the research, alongside how chairs manage the workload, prioritise their time, and use it to build the team of trustees.

Good governance requires challenge, debate and diversity of thought, approach and experience; one of the ways this can be achieved is through diversity of the people on the board. Two thirds of respondents identified as male, with a mean age of 61 years, all but one respondent identified as white and only one reported having a disability. I’m pleased Regional Schools Commissioners do now ask questions of MATs about the diversity of their board. When developing succession plans, trusts need to do more to encourage women to take on leadership roles on the board.

Although 54.9% of respondents said they were happy with the amount of time they were donating to the trust, that leaves a considerable minority percentage who are not; and 63.4% of respondents said it is not possible to work full time whilst chairing a MAT.  Unsurprisingly, those who reported working longer paid hours were more likely to report a negative outlook on the time commitment, and were more likely to say that the role impacted negatively upon the time they could spend with family or friends.  It would not be healthy if those with the commitment of a paid job were able to volunteer to chair.  It is important that the role is do-able for a wide range of people, not just those with the luxury of time.  29% of respondents had considered resigning because of the commitment. This is particularly concerning considering that only 44.1% of respondents had a succession plan in place.

What is asked of volunteers cannot be unreasonable. NGA’s Chairs’ Handbook already includes advice on making the role sustainable, but this new research should help further.  However we are also encouraging the MAT sector to have a frank conversation about trustee workload.

Good governance requires challenge, debate and diversity of thought, approach and experience; one of the ways this can be achieved is through diversity of the people on the board

Emma Knights

One immediate response may be to suggest chairs should be paid, but respondents were very much split on the question of remuneration, with less than one third supporting the proposition that MAT chairs should be paid.   This confirms NGA’s earlier work on this issue.

So before we jump into this sort of debate again, let’s please have greater recognition of the role those volunteering to govern are playing.  Using the survey data, we calculated chairs of MATs across the whole academy sector are giving time worth the equivalent of between £7 and 9 million a year.  This is an enormous contribution which should be shouted from the rooftops.

Fig 1: Showing the percentage of respondents who completed a selection of duties within the past twelve months.

Fig 2: Breakdown of time spent in one year by chairs carrying out the following duties.
How respondents feel about the time commitment