Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

25/04/2019 18:04:51

Today we are publishing our interim research report 'Exploring the time it takes a chair a multi academy trust (MAT)'. It confirms, more than ever, the significant contributions made by those governing our MATs for no monetary reward – but to the value of between £7.3 and £9.8 million a year.

As a membership organisation that takes care to listen to those governing England’s state schools and to use all available evidence, the National Governance Association (NGA) has always been hugely conscious of the expectations placed on volunteers, not just in terms of legal responsibilities, but also in terms of their time. For many years NGA has suggested governing a school - unless there were exceptional circumstances - should be possible within 10-20 days per year, a benchmark I adopted from charity trusteeship. However, over the years our annual governance surveys have shown for some time that this is not in fact the case for many volunteers, particularly those that chair the governing board and that recruiting and retaining governors and trustees is becoming harder. My preconception of the average time it takes to govern was being questioned and we needed to arm ourselves with some up-to-date and sector specific evidence.

In 2016, our first time to chair research report found that there was much variability in the hours chairs of single schools were giving, and we used those findings to improve the advice we give to chairs on making the role sustainable, including in our Chairs’ Handbook. Last year we began our series of multi academy trust (MAT) governance case studies, which highlighted just how much more time the chairs of those trusts were donating, and it was cleared we need time to chair mark-two: the first ever research of the time it takes to chair a MAT. This interim report by Tom Fellows, NGA’s Research Manager, is only half way through the research, but it throws up a number of insights which I cover in the foreword of the report. Tom has carefully reported the research findings – but here I am at liberty to comment more freely.

Three issues seem of immediate importance:

The second phase of the research will help provide more knowledge about the decisions chairs make about their time, but at this interim stage, it is easy to see a quick win in terms of the time required to chair a MAT. Chairs – and other trustees – can immediately consider resigning from other roles, both that of being a member of the trust and of being a member of an academy committee/council. It is not best practice to govern at more than one level of the trust; it introduces a conflict of interest. I appreciate almost all those who govern do so initially because of a commitment to a local school or community, but governing a group of schools, such as a MAT trustee, requires an understanding of all parts of the trust and an equal commitment to all its pupils. I would encourage all MAT boards to give consideration to ensuring separation between all their layers of volunteer governance.

Second, we need to improve the diversity of MAT boards. Women are not equally represented as chairs of MAT boards; this confirms the results of our annual governance survey, from which I reported on gender in more detail in a blog. When developing succession plans, trusts need to do more to encourage women to take on the leadership roles on the board. There are also very few BAME chairs of MATs. NGA has been running the Everyone on Board campaign to improve diversity, especially as regards age and ethnicity; we have had great support from across the school sector, including the Department for Education and the Secretary of State. Our efforts need to double down, and we are pleased that Inspiring Governance and Academy Ambassadors are working together on the second stage of the campaign to attract more BAME volunteers.

Third, chairing a MAT is taking on average almost one working day a week, more than double that was being expected from other charity chairs. Although fifty-five percent of respondents said they were happy with the amount of time they were donating to chairing the trust, that leaves a considerable minority percentage who are not. It is important that the role is do-able for a wide range of people, not just those with the luxury of time. The ask cannot be unreasonable. The data reveals, unsurprisingly, that those who reported working longer 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 only those without the commitment of a paid job were able to volunteer to chair.

We need to have a wide ranging and informed conversation as to how we make this role sustainable. We have for a number of years been lobbying the Department for Education to take the issue of volunteer workload seriously. We are of course pleased that the topic of teacher workload has been recognised by the government, but we have suggested a similar emphasis should be afforded to governance workload as well. This report surely adds an urgency to this debate now. I will today be asking the Department for Education how they will be responding to this research.

One immediate response is 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. We have explored this option in detail in previous years, and it is not one supported by anywhere like a majority of those governing.

Before we jump to this sort of conclusion, let’s please have greater recognition of the role those governing are playing, alongside a more frank conversation about trustee and governor workload, informed by this data on the additional time being taken to chair a MAT.

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