Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

05/02/2016 15:56:29

Place, localism, community engagement … call it what you will… is enormously important to most school governors. They volunteer because they want to put something back into the community, to help improve the education for local children.  And for me personally it was why when I graduated, I volunteered at two local advice centres which acted as community hubs for their estates.  Much of what I have tried to do over the thirty years since has been to help public services and policy makers listen to the voices of the many, and particularly those who do not have easy access to the corridors of power.

National Governors’ Association is proud of our charitable, not for profit, status and is saddened by the latest revelations about Kids Company, where governance so clearly failed and by an emerging story today about AgeUK, both of which are likely to fuel concern about oversight of charities. It underlines the fact that no sector gets it right 100% of the time, but we have to ensure there are also strong checks and balances which reduce the risks of things going awry, and beneficiaries losing out.

NGA’s charitable aim is to improve of the well-being of children and young people in England by promoting high standards in all our schools, and improving the effectiveness of their governing boards. We keep that at the front of our minds when reflecting on the difficult issue of what governance we need at school level.

Governance is the process of making decisions which define the expectations, direction, and management systems of an organisation to ensure its effective operation in order to achieve its purpose.

Because of this connection with the local community, as governors, our instincts are to want to preserve governance at local level. And it was from this starting point, we approached our work with federations four years ago.  Schools within local authority maintained federations do give up school level governance in order to improve the offer and outcomes for their pupils, and there has been a lot of information gathered to show that joining together in a group with one governing board does improve education in its constituent schools.  NGA research: The Road to Federation

Having to give up decision making at each school of the federation has sometimes put off governing bodies from joining federations but because federations are almost always formed as a result of a decision by existing governing bodies, there has not been an outpouring of concern about the governance change they heralded.

On the other hand there was a bit of an outcry a few weeks ago when the press began to report that one of the larger multi academy trusts (MATs), E-act, had abolished local governing bodies (LGBs) and replaced them with academy ambassadors advisory groups. This is not by any means the first MAT to remove key functions from the LGB; one of the differences is that E-act was upfront about the changes and underlined them with a change of name. Some other MATs have also called their local groups something akin to advisory councils without this hitting the headlines. So you could argue that there has been a revolution going on in governance, but largely in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms.

The E-act coverage shouldn’t really have taken people by surprise, but it is perhaps because they didn’t realise that the decision making responsibilities are held by the Board of Trustees in a MAT.  It is not unusual for callers to our GOLD advice line to say ‘The board of trustees has just done such & such, but they can’t, can they?’ – and the answer is usually ‘yes they can’.  Another question we quite frequently get from those governing at academy level is ‘But we were told that nothing would change when we joined the MAT – we would keep on governing in the same way as before’.  Whether this was said to entice good schools to join, or simply that things have changed since they joined, this clearly was never going to the case – it shouldn’t even have been from the off and it should never have been guaranteed.

Understanding these changes becomes of more and more importance as the number of schools in MATs grow.

The rise of the multi academy trust:

  • One quarter of state funded schools in England are now academies

  • 59% (3250 out of 5444) of academies are in MATs, up from 53% at the end of 2013/14 academic year.

  • 81% of academies that opened in the 2014/15 academic year did so as part of a MAT, up from 73% in 2013/14

As of  31 Dec 15:

  • 11 MATs have 30+ schools; these include 8% of academies (2% of schools)

  • 11% of academies in MATs of 10-29 schools

  • 39% academies in MATs of 2-10 (similar size to most federations)

  • 41% of academies are still standalone

No data on federations kept centrally: NGA’s surveys suggest they are between 5.5% - 7% of all school with some new ones forming & some becoming MATs.

At NGA we have never liked academy level governance within MATs being called LGBs; it suggests a similar function to maintained school governing bodies when LGBs are committees of the MAT’s trust board. If we look at half a dozen key tasks of a governing body, within any particular MAT how often are all of these exercised at LGB level:

  • Determining the individual academy’s vision, ethos and strategic direction?
  • Recruiting the academy’s Principal/Head of school?
  • Performance management of the academy’s Principal/Head of school?
  • Determination of Human Resources policy and practice?
  • Oversight of the academy’s budget?
  • Assessment of the risks for the academy?

I think the answer would be very few. Some of these tasks have been delegated to the senior executives of the trust; for example, in any company or third sector organisation the line manager is employed to performance manage his or her reports.  So it makes perfect sense for an executive head to manage the school’s head teacher.  Decisions must be made by the people with the skills and knowledge in the system; we can’t have two sets of people making the same decisions.  That leads at best to muddle and confusion.  

So if these functions are not delegated to the school level, then what is left for a school level non-executive body to do? Monitoring standards is the most likely function, but is this best carried out by volunteers, coming from other sectors, now that there are senior executives paid to do this and the board of trustees holds them to account? 

But on the other hand how does the board know all its schools?  Even with performance data, executive reports and the advice of paid external advisers, the board needs to understand the context, the community, and other soft information can add a lot.  In fact, the views of parents, pupils and staff are essential.  The school level group can act as the eyes and ears of board, but also support the school, bringing links from other local organisations, helping the school to play its role in the community, being ambassadors and cheer leaders. These are all important tasks, yet something which most traditional governing bodies have not had the time to do as we are too busy reviewing policies or ensuring compliance.  A new advisory role with influence, rather than responsibility, could be one which builds on the best of governing, being part of school life, rather than the bits we don’t enjoy. Come on – is there anyone out there governing at school level who would actually mourn the loss of responsibility for signing off policies?   

Over the last couple of years, NGA has been working with more and more MATs to explore effective governance options and how the time of committed volunteers can be best used to improve the education of pupils. Two things have struck us, first the appreciation by academy trustees and senior leaders of the contribution of local people and an understanding that community links and parental engagement are crucial. Secondly, that we are having very similar conversions with different MATs and there has been no easy way in which MATs can learn from what has gone before.

So this week jointly with Academy Ambassadors we brought together thirty-five MATs at the Department for Education (DfE) to discuss these very issues, and a very thoughtful Chatham House discussion was had.  The learning from that will inform publications that NGA is now working on: an induction guide called ‘Welcome to a multi academy trust’ and guidance on schemes of delegation. Clarity, transparency, engagement of stakeholders and communications in both directions were big themes.

"Who does own our state schools? How do we hold the Trustees to account?"

Although this change has been taking place largely under the radar of the commentariat, some governing bodies have hesitated from joining a MAT or federation as they did not want to give up local governance, which in itself signals a loss of the much flaunted autonomy.  This concern could be compounded by a number of fears – fear of take-over; dislike of change; and concern about losing of identity of school – ‘our uniqueness’.  Yet are these fears well founded, whether in federation or MATs?  We volunteer to improve the education of pupils – so if joining a group of schools improves the offer to and outcomes for pupils, then can we be justified in hanging onto school level governance?  One of the hardest parts of self review for governing boards is working out the impact our work has had.  None of us has a right to govern – we don’t ‘own’ our schools, as a governing board we are the guardians safeguarding the ethos, values, standard and conduct.  We can’t be the only ones who are trustworthy to do it.

At first consideration, this might seem a technical, dry issue. But it invites a number of bigger fundamental questions:  Who does own our state schools? How do we hold the Trustees to account?  A federation governing body is answerable to the local authority. With a multi academy trust, the board of trustees are appointed by the members who are often a small group, who are largely unknown or misunderstood! How do we stop this becoming a self-perpetuating, powerful elite?  What is the check and balance in the system which is costing much public money and providing education for our children?

One of the main reasons why many of us – whether educational professionals or governors – feel uncomfortable about the loss of decision making by school level governing bodies is that it diminishes the local voice, local intelligence, local involvement.  But actually emphasising the role of school level advisory groups in ensuring this happens could herald a renaissance of meaningful engagement of communities and parents in influencing the governance of schools.

NGA has been trying for some time to collect examples of this in order to update our ‘Knowing your parents’ briefing note, and very little has come forward.  There is often not a history of real involvement in schools – we have nodded towards parent governors as achieving this, when this is not their role. Parent governors are not – and never have been – representatives of the parent body.

Arguably advisory groups would need to be completely transparent in relaying their advice to the senior executives of the MAT and the board of trustees, and thus could play a very important part in holding them to account.

Often the parallel is drawn with the private sector – with members of academy trusts described as akin to shareholders.  But this is an invidious comparison – state schools have absolutely nothing to do with profit making or paying dividends.  No-one should become involved in the governance of charities or schools out of self-interest, quite the opposite.  So how do we square this circle and ensure governance decisions are made by the people best placed to do so without losing the accountability to the local community and the taxpayer that is required for such an important public service?  

"Could we not be a little more revolutionary about the membership of academy trusts, drawing on the practice of the charity sector to which academies belong?" 

Could we not be a little more revolutionary about the membership of academy trusts, drawing on the practice of the charity sector to which academies belong?  NGA’s members are you – our subscribers – and you can elect some trustees and attend our AGM to vote on motions.  Our board of trustees is held to account by our members as well as the Charity Commission and company law. Could we do something along the same sort of lines for academies? Open membership to a wider group of people in order to truly hold the academy trust’s board of trustees to account? Even perhaps all parents?

These musings of mine are not NGA policy – decisions will be made later this year by NGA’s board of trustees. This is the beginning of a process of consultation of our members. They are my own reflections having had three decades of experience in the charity sector, drawing on NGA’s school governance expertise and more than three years of experience of working with developing multi academy trusts.  We now want to hear from our members and your views will be fed into those board discussions. So do come and discuss this at our spring regional meetings.  We will be posing a number of questions - and want to hear whether you are worried about the removal of decision making by governors at school level or whether you see this as an opportunity to truly engage the voices of many more people in our schools.

If you are not able to come to the discussion, please do comment on this blog.

Emma Knights is Chief Executive of the National Governors' Association.

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