February 2021 edition: Reflections on the Governance Professional Role in Academy Trusts

Reflections on the Governance Professional Role in Academy Trusts

One of the many contradictions I have experienced over the past year since Covid-19 entered our lives, is that life can simultaneously feel like it is moving along at breakneck speed from day to day, but has also taken on a slower pace that gives more space for reflection.

Over the past year, governance professionals have played a pivotal role in trusts’ responses to the pandemic, responding quickly to translate guidance into practical next steps, and advising on the best course of action. As we approach the milestone of one year since the pandemic began to impact our schools, I wanted to share five reflections on the role of governance professionals in academy trusts. I hope that they will give an insight into the realities of our day-to-day work and the perspectives we bring to inspire reflections on how governance is delivered within your trusts.

No two governance professional roles are the same

I have never met two governance professionals with the same job description. The role is hugely wide-ranging and varied. Most roles will include the core aspects of delivering trustees, committees or local governance, along with board recruitment and development. We support our schools around admissions, exclusions, panels and stakeholder engagement. There are also company secretarial aspects of the role including policy development, risk, internal audit – perhaps even some data protection thrown in for good measure! The role is interesting, and demanding, and every day brings something new.

The role is both technical and strategic

Whilst governance professionals are known for bringing a range of technical skills, we also hold a unique position and vantage point within an academy trust. We see the ‘birds eye view’ that is held by the board, whilst also understanding the realities ‘on the ground’. Along with this, we often take on the informal role of confidante and advisor, and our work helps to protect the trust’s reputation. We can offer both technical and strategic input to those who are governing and leading trusts. This will be particularly important as boards move from immediate Covid-19 response to reviewing the longer-term impacts of this challenging time on our pupils, families and communities. Governance professionals can support boards and the executive team to find time and space to consider how the trust will adapt and change in response to this new world we find ourselves in.

There is growing recognition of the role of the governance professional

The remit of the governance professional role has grown and broadened as the academy trust sector itself has developed. At the recent Academy Governance Summit delivered by The Chartered Governance Institute it was encouraging to hear the recognition of the role in the keynote addresses from Baroness Berridge and Leora Cruddas. Their speeches emphasised the difference between the role of ‘clerk’ in the maintained sector, compared to the complexities of delivering governance in trusts which are both educational organisations, companies and charities. It is encouraging that trusts are increasingly investing in the continuing professional development of their governance professionals, whether through training, mentoring or qualifications.

The people make the role

One of the real joys of taking on the governance professional role is the people that we work alongside. Trustees, committee members and those involved in local governance dedicate their time and expertise to the development of our schools. The past year has also brought into focus the responsibilities trustees hold, and boards have offered significant engagement and energy over the past year. Their contribution should be celebrated.

Governance professionals not only bring a range of technical skills, but also hold a unique position and vantage point within the organisation.

Anna Machin

It is also a privilege to work alongside executive leaders who have worked tirelessly to navigate through the challenges of the past year. They have maintained a relentless focus on the safety and wellbeing of staff and pupils, and the boards I work with have expressed huge gratitude for all that has been achieved.

Community is more important than ever before

I think one of the reflections that we have all taken away from the past year has been the importance of our personal and professional relationships, and engagement in our wider communities. The relationships held between boards and executive leaders have deepened through the support each has provided to the other. I personally have hugely valued being part of a wider professional community of governance professionals, including through Trust Governance Insight, and it feels like we have truly walked through the past year together. It has been fantastic to see the spirit of collaboration, support and sharing of practice and resources between governance professionals.

Our schools and trusts also sit at the heart of our communities, and it has been heartening to hear the recognition of pupils, parents and the wider community for the support that schools have provided over the past year. This will act as a strong foundation for the better times that will eventually come.