Sam Henson

Author: Sam Henson

01/04/2022 13:16:46

“So that trusts continue to be responsive to parents and local communities, all trusts should have local governance arrangements for their schools”
Opportunity for all, Department for Education, Schools White Paper, March 2022

A conclusive and convincing case has been building over the last decade for why local governance in multi academy trusts (MATs) now features in the Department for Education’s (DfE) plans for building a “stronger and fairer school system”. Local governance within MATs, or the local tier as we have come to call it, forms the bridge connecting the trust board to its schools. 

Experience demonstrating the powerful impact this can have has enabled the local tier to overcome any suggestion of its demise, and there have been many predictions that it would not stand the test of time. While the vast majority of trusts are committed to local governance, its inclusion within the white paper should make those less convinced think twice. We both welcome and encourage the wider sector “discussion” the white paper has promised on this topic: we have been sharing NGA’s experience with the DfE and are pleased that they have been in listening mode. This knowledge has already informed the DfE’s position, and we will work to make sure that continues so that the outcome adds to the strength of governance and pupils’ education.

The board of trustees is the MAT’s ultimate decision-making body: as the governance geeks in the system, it took us many years to persuade others of this, and our staff and consultants continue these explanations daily. The trust board decides the all-important scheme of delegation (SOD) which should set out clearly who does what at what level. The local tier adds value and can do something the trust board can’t – focus on one location, one school, playing a key role in understanding the needs and maintaining a school’s identity within the trust. It does not distract or detract from the trust board’s role: it improves its decision-making. 

For anyone who remains unconvinced, let me come back briefly to the benefits that local governance offers:

  • Evidence-based governance: equips trust boards with school level intelligence to strengthen decision making, reflecting the needs of multiple communities, enabling more strategic and robust governance;
  • Visible governance: creates a powerful advocate for the trust’s vision and values at the local level, helping to retain active engagement with the school and the wider community, supporting the trust’s mission and work;
  • Accountable governance: keeps the trust answerable to its stakeholders, providing a mechanism for the trust to listen to parents, staff, pupils and others in the community;
  • Checks and balances: provides a valuable source of challenge to the trust board, essential to good governance, avoiding the group-think which can set in on small boards at a distance from schools;
  • Collaborative governance: a local focus on accountability helps keep the trust grounded in the importance of place and its civic duties, and the need to work with others locally.

The currently undefined remit of local governance is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives flexibility providing room to harness the power of local voice in different ways, and we would not want to see flexibilities replaced by a straitjacket. But on the other hand, it has prevented the establishment of a basic set of universal requirements.  The lack of common expectations at a national level has allowed poor practice to fester in places, wheels to be reinvented and for many, the topic just to be pushed down the list of priorities.  Regulation shouldn’t always be needed to ensure the right thing happens, but there does need to be nudged to ensure strong trust governance everywhere.

While NGA has always been keen to help facilitate innovative approaches, the reality is that this has not developed as we once imagined it might. Different approaches such as cluster and hub committees have largely either been shunned or proven to not be all that helpful.  That is a topic for another blog, but a wide range of approaches to MAT governance may not become part of the sector’s story after all. Some have even acted against good local governance. As we channel this into the white paper deliberations, we should focus more on the strengths and weaknesses of an enduring, tried and tested model. Doing things well should be the standard, not simply doing things differently.

Last week, NGA published MAT governance: the future is local, a thought piece exploring the local tier's story over the last ten years or so. In doing so we have put forward our suggested 12 expectations for the local tier of MAT governance:

 1. Communication – two-way communication is crucial, including regular meetings with the trust board chair, vice-chair and chairs at the local level.

2. Separation – MAT governance has three layers for a reason, and to ensure accountability those serving on each layer must remain distinct. The trust maintains a clear distinction between accountability through governance (by the trust board and its committees) and accountability through line management (by executive leaders).

3. Investment in professional, expert support – there must be a lead governance professional in any MAT to guide and connect the work of local committees and the trust board, and professional clerking of every academy committee.

4. Clear delegation – a good scheme of delegation is essential to ensuring harmonious working between the layers of governance. Local governance enhances trust board accountability as its eyes and ears at the school level.

5. The local tier does not have its own committees – an academy committee or LGB is in itself a committee of the trust board, and the fourth tier of governance is unduly complicated.

6. A meaningful, welcome and accepted role in challenge – you do not remove the local committee simply for being challenging. There is a formal process for removing governors including an appeals process.

7. A local tier formed by local volunteers, not executives – executives do not attempt to control the conversation. 

8. Trust boards are visible and accountable to the local tier – local governors are invited to hear of the work of the trustees as a minimum on an annual basis through the AGM or via other means.

9. The trust CEO and executive team include input from the local tier, namely the chair, in the performance management of school heads.

10. The trust values and seeks engagement from the local tier in the recruitment of new heads, including the local chair in the recruitment process.

11. A whole trust governance development plan that encourages governors to learn from schools outside their trust.

12. The local tier retains a contribution to school improvement and is aware of what the school’s budget is and the plan for how it is to be spent.

These proposed expectations were initially trialled at NGA’s MAT network meeting, with 130 attendees including a mix of MAT trustees, governance professionals and CEOs providing a quick-fire reaction. The proposed expectations were largely endorsed, although the one least supported was the expectation that the local tier does not have its own committees, with 38% support.   

The mechanisms for definitive local accountability offered through MAT governance has not had the attention it deserves, but thanks to the white paper, the growing conversation should gather more pace and attention. Our proposed expectations reflect the things we have seen that have brought the most value to trust boards and the local tier alike over the last ten years. With the white paper opening up a sector conversation on how to implement local governance in MATs, perhaps now is the time to set the standard.

We are keen to hear your thoughts too, so please do contact me at sam.henson@nga.org.uk.

Our Governance Leadership forum for multi academy trust boards on Monday 16 May is now open for bookings.

The forum will provide attendees with an opportunity to share their thoughts, experiences and reaction to the plans with those governing and leading schools in similar situations.

NGA has published summary sheets for everything that governing boards need to know about the Schools White Paper and the Green Paper, to provide an overview of what is to be expected for the future of education.

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