Moving MATs forward – debate one
NGA’s recent report Moving MATs forward: the power of governance, poses four big debates to take the sector forwards. Sam Henson, Director of Policy and Information explores the first of these, in part one of our Moving MATs Forward debate series.
The role of academy trust members, the top yet most elusive tier of MAT governance, has been a significant sticking point for the MAT system. There has been rather a lot of misunderstanding about trust members and what they should be doing. In the absence of official clarification, a year ago NGA produced well-received guidance to clarify the role. NGA’s Moving MATs Forward report suggests the debate around members should go further than clarifying the role, questioning if the academy trust membership model is actually the right one.
Accountability is a large and important concept, much written and talked about. But it often means different things to different people. In the education sector, accountability is all too often thought of in an entirely hierarchical sense, a lingering presence of an accountability culture driven by Whitehall, where school leaders often end up feeling like there isn’t much room to think beyond Ofsted and performance tables and expectations set by the Department.
The NAHT Accountability Commission, which published its report Improving School Accountability in 2018, stated that the current accountability system “is failing”, that performance tables and Ofsted are “no longer working in the interests of all pupils, parents, schools or the government”. For MATs, the picture is even more complicated and bitty, with Ofsted currently unable to inspect the MAT as a whole. This naturally leads many to question who is actually holding trusts to account – who does the trustee board actually answer to, and how does it answer well ?
Accountability, one of the Nolan Principles, is all about being able to provide answers, and answerability is a matter of ethics. Leaders of public institutions have to be able to acknowledge responsibility for their actions to the people that matter. While the government clearly has a major part to play, as organisations which can help glue communities together, trusts should not become separated from that communal voice, and therefore need to be able to provide answers in response to that voice.
Accountability isn’t as simple as just answering questions, it depends on the right systems, practices and structures being in place. One such system of course is the Department for Education itself, which is ultimately responsible for ensuring teaching and learning is delivered and academic standards are met across the country. Yet many trusts remain largely untouched by the DfE itself. While the likes of the ESFA and Ofsted are there to help ensure standards and performance are maintained, the limited frequency and scope of their respective visits, communications and inspections means some big questions in some trusts - some of which may have been tackled by local authorities in the past - can remain unanswered.
This results in a small membership (the trust Members) - typically be a group of between three and five individuals, some of whom are commonly trustees themselves - being largely responsible for the accountability of trustees. The idea of MATs actually being ‘held to account’ therefore can be legitimately questioned. Some MATs simply have members because they are a legal requirement rather than seeing them as a governance asset that aid real accountability; but there rests a fair question – are members, in the current form, actually as much of an asset as they could be? And do trust members help create a true form of accountability for our schools?
The current model concentrates the power in academy trusts in the hands of too few people, sometimes distant from its schools and communities. NGA has questioned for some time how legitimate a model this is for a public service, asking if trust membership can and should be opened up to parents and the community. This would mean that many people with an interest in the trust would have the power to hold the trustees to account in a limited but distinct way. Exactly what this would look like in practice clearly needs to be explored further, but could include parents as Members being invited to the AGM to receive the accounts and then given the opportunity to ask questions of the Board. NGA want to hear the views of trusts, parents, policymakers and others on this proposal.
Taking this approach may also help trusts to engage with their stakeholders. Difficulties with community engagement are not unique to MATs yet can be compounded by size and geography. In larger MATs, exactly what is meant by ‘community’ and ‘stakeholder’ may be questioned. With looser community links, some MAT boards over rely on executives to speak for the school community, rather than incorporating stakeholder voice into the process.
Local democratic accountability
One criticism levelled at the MAT system is that it has facilitated the removal of lines of accountability to local democratic government or stakeholder groups. In comparison, the argument is that the maintained sector provides accountability primarily through democratic elected groups. With no formal link to local authorities, academy trusts do not have local authority appointed trustees and, in almost all cases, there is no requirement to have community representatives on the board. While many trusts are actively engaged with local authorities and other local services, there is no requirement for them to do so.
Issues have been confounded by public perceptions, with parents and others in the community sometimes reluctant to work with MATs, seeing them as an outside imposition rather than a force for good.
Insights from the charity sector
There are of course legal and logistical barriers to consider, currently a set model needs to be followed, but to ignore this issue comes at the risk of fragmenting identity and true accountability, with a lack of a mechanism that connects trusts to the communities and people they serve and enables true transparency.
Opening up MAT membership to a wide range of interested parties has been shown to work in other sectors. Alison Critchley wrote a guest blog on this topic for NGA in 2017, raising a valuable point; the notion that a small group of founding members ‘own’ an organisation in the way founders of a business own a privately established company is wrong. Alison’s blog pointed to the charity sector for potential answers, where subscribers to a charity are often also part of its membership – as with NGA itself – and are therefore invited to the AGM and given the opportunity to hold the leaders to account.
A way forward
So the absence of sector wide accountability to parents and the community might not be that hard to rectify. Such a model has been shown to work in the charity sector, and academy trusts are charities.
The model of encouraging parents and others with a stake in the community to become members of the trust is just one suggestion, and others may have different suggestions. But in the last few years not one alternative suggestion has been made. Instead there is talk of improving parental engagement, an important activity in its own right, but not the same as real accountability.
Concerns about decisions being made by powerful but distant and invisible groups needs a response and avoiding this discussion is counter-productive. That conversation needs to be had to equip MATs to be publicly accountable to their communities. Our proposed model works without great upheaval, building on the existing legal model, and in one fell swoop plugging the flaws in the current academy system: the lack of democratic and local accountability.