February 2022 edition: Reflections on Governance in the Academy Sector

Reflections on Governance in the Academy Sector

Coming into the education governance sector as a relative outsider, having previously worked in the NHS, I was interested to find so much of my work really didn’t feel that different, certainly at Trust Board level. At the end of the day, the general principles of governance apply to most sectors.

The main difference for me was the relatively complex multi-layer and multi-site levels of governance that I needed to piece together, including Members, Trustees, Local Governors, and Executive governance. Having to get my head around writing a new scheme of delegation and governance arrangements within the first two months of starting soon sorted that out!

What struck me most about MAT governance is the volunteer movement. I’m humbled by the sheer commitment and dedication of governors who give their time so generously in the name of school improvement. We ask a lot of our volunteers and they keep on giving time and time again – safeguarding, data, school improvement, pupil premium, SEND, complaints, exclusions – the list goes on and all are so important in our schools. Oh, and to top it off, Ofsted inspections!

One thing that I am truly grateful for in the MAT sector, and in my opinion a big area missing in institutions like the NHS, is the fantastic networks of governance professionals that exist.

Maria Maltby

Interestingly, in the NHS, Trustee equivalent roles are generally paid, often to ensure key roles in medical practice can be backfilled during the time out, but also to attract high quality candidates and secure a time commitment. In my experience, this did not always achieve the desired effect and I’ve certainly observed poor challenge and scrutiny, and appalling attendance on NHS boards. Meanwhile, in my MAT, I’ve experienced a very high calibre of both Trustees and governors, whose commitment is not secured through pay but rather a real and genuine desire to improve outcomes for young people.

However, coming from a well-established institution like the NHS, it is clear that governance in MATs is still evolving and has yet to mature. The NHS is full of very clear and consistent guidance and governance models, while DfE guidance feels very different and sometimes confused. I think the MAT governance maturity journey is hampered somewhat by the guidance produced by the DfE, which actually merges maintained school governance and trust governance into one.

This dilutes understanding, particularly amongst governors, and as someone new joining the sector it was initially a challenge! Setting out clear and consistent expectations and principles in relation to governance should be something that the DfE should be learning from other government departments such as the NHS. I know fellow governance professionals in MATs absolutely welcome CST’s mission to create clarity and appropriate sector specific guidance.

I would also note that most NHS organisations have employed a governance professional as a well-established, senior, and highly valued role. This is quite different in education with the DfE only recently mandating the role of the governance professional, and with MATs clearly differing in how they interpret or value the role. This is often apparent in where they position the role in the organisation, in terms of the level and of course remuneration. The DfE competency framework does not help this, with the terminology of ‘governance professional’ being underpinned, in their view, by the competencies and experience of the traditional role of clerk.

I truly respect the role of the clerk which is essential to school governance and of course there is an element of clerking for the governance professional. However, times have moved on, and leading governance at a strategic level in a trust, as a governance expert, is a very different role to that of a clerk. While I was fortunate that I joined the sector from a senior NHS position, coming into a Trust that values the role and the profession, gives me a voice, and sees me as an equal and a member of the Senior Executive Team, this is an area where education could learn from the NHS.

One thing that I am truly grateful for in the MAT sector, and in my opinion a big area missing in institutions like the NHS, is the fantastic networks of governance professionals that exist. Credit and thanks to a handful of proactive individuals who saw the need (you know who you are!) and have developed the networks from strength to strength.

NHS organisations tend to be relatively inward looking and there were no network groups where ideas, best practice, concerns, and questions could be discussed in a safe and non-judgemental environment. Yes, we made a few contacts with neighbouring organisations but nothing that provided such a wide collection of knowledge and expertise with such a willingness to share ideas and resources and speak so openly. This is such a valuable resource and I think this is particularly important in a sector where governance is still on a development trajectory.

Finally, it is great to have passionate and impactful organisations like CST who understand MATs and how fundamentally different they are to maintained schools. Advocating for and bringing together knowledge, skills, and best practice specifically for the sector is invaluable and a must to enable positive developments to achieve robust, effective, and proportionate governance for the sector.