Rethinking Governance: A Place-Based Design
With schools spanning from the Isle of Wight to Middlesbrough, Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) has one of the largest national footprints when it comes to Academy Trusts. The social, economic, and educational challenges within our schools vary substantially; this national presence requires us to think creatively about organisational design.
As we make the pivot from turnaround to high performance, we have thought hard about how to make the most of the many opportunities our size and scale affords, whilst recognising that first and foremost, our schools exist to serve their local communities. Regardless of whether schools are part of a national, regional, or local Academy Trust, there is one constant - positive change cannot happen without the support and strength of the people in a school’s immediate local community.
Place is often overlooked as a determinant for the quality of a person's life. I was struck recently by data from The Health Foundation demonstrating that women in England's 10% most deprived communities have a lower life expectancy than almost every other comparable country in the world. Many of our 57 schools serve these communities.
We hope that our new Academy Councils will have more time and space to focus on the whole school experience that informs a young person's education, rather than just accountability data alone.
Finding ways to hardwire local democratic accountability and collaboration between all actors in our schools’ immediate communities is a founding principle for AET’s refreshed organisational design. From September, we will rejuvenate our local governance model, merging existing governing boards and parent advisory boards to establish brand new Academy Councils.
We have designed Academy Councils to incorporate the voice of our local communities into our governance model so that we really do understand the local reputation of each of our schools. After looking carefully at where and how local governance can offer the most impact in a large trust model, we are seeking to better understand the individual needs of our schools, and what it's actually like to be a pupil, parent or member of staff in each of our contexts. We also want to establish a mechanism for local communities to hold us to account for the challenge and support we provide to their school.
Articulating how we want all actors to add value is perhaps the biggest challenge for any complex governance structure at scale. Failing to clarify the purpose of a governance model can lead to schools spending too much time looking for skills that they don’t actually need or duplicating work. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that local governors need specialist expertise, when in reality balanced input from people who want the best for their communities may be more valuable.
The question of whether a school is doing well depends entirely on who is asking the question and what they are looking at. Across AET we want to deliver sustainable excellence in all that we do; to achieve this, the health of our schools is equally important as their performance.
We hope that our new Academy Councils will have more time and space to focus on the whole school experience that informs a young person's education, rather than just accountability data alone. Working to the premise that soft intel can sometimes be the richest and hardest to shift, as a collective, our Councils need to shine a light on the blind spots in our provision by asking us the tough questions that we may not yet know the answers to.
Refocusing the attention of governance has been made possible with adaptation elsewhere in our organisational design. We think about governance through three lenses: statutory governance – those functions held by the Trust Board; professional governance – regional management and school improvement; and local community governance – through Academy Councils.
The combination of Regional Education Directors and a new quality assurance function to monitor educational provision and performance at each school, alongside the diverse perspectives of Academy Councils as a feedback loop to keep us real, aims to combine and maximise the pool of knowledge and different perspectives within the Trust.
Governance is often criticised for being overly complicated and bureaucratic. But our school communities are not latent populations to deliver education to; they are a huge reservoir of aspiration and knowledge to draw from. For levelling-up to be more than a political slogan and lead to a more equal spread of opportunity, their voices must be heard.
Deeper collaboration between our schools, students, parents and wider community members is essential to building strong links with the local economy and voluntary organisations, developing imaginative enrichment activities, and deepening parental engagement. Particularly, in the context of the Schools White Paper, with every school in a family of schools by 2030, Trusts need to think differently about the importance of localism.
Communities should be able to feel proud of the schools within their local area, especially in the places where cohesion and connectedness may be lacking. But this has not always been the case, and that is as true of AET as it has been elsewhere in the system.
By prioritising local voices within a place-based approach, we hope to remove the obstacles which too frequently prevent parents and communities engaging positively with education and reframe an outmoded model of governance so that we recognise the importance of different perspectives and contributions. In doing so, we hope that every one of our schools will feel deeply connected and integrated within their local communities and that AET is seen as a positive example of a national network which is by design, set up to stay grounded and responsive to the people and places that we serve.