Emma Knights, chief executive, NGA

Author: Emma Knights, chief executive, NGA

28/06/2019 10:14:12

At the National Governance Association we work with large numbers of multi academy trusts (MATs) in all sorts of ways, and today we are publishing a report which pulls together the learning from all of that experience. Our evidence is often gathered from the hard work of thousands of good people who are giving significant amounts of time to govern multi academy trusts. It is so important that we use this valuable time well in a way which promotes the interests of pupils.

While many in the sector say that the academy system is immature, the last decade should have taught us all more than it has. Today’s report is our contribution to this system improvement, sharing learning in our own area of expertise: trust governance. The report includes a very long list of things we can do to improve, and indeed many trusts already are, but not all are aware of the issues others have faced.

We need governance to take centre stage: well, NGA would say that wouldn’t we? But our analysis is that the fundamental reason that the sector has been slow to get governance right in MATs is that it has been overlooked – both in the design stage of the academy movement and in the move to governing more than one school. And despite the stress now on the importance of governance by the powers that be – from the Secretary of State for Education to the National Schools Commissioner and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector – there is still insufficient general knowledge of governance.

There was some lip service paid to governance in the days of Labour’s sponsored academies, this was very much about the importance of giving sponsors independence. The formation of charitable trusts was almost a by-the-by, the vehicle chosen to achieve this independence. Andrew Adonis’ 2012 book Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools is fascinating on this point: trust and trustee does not feature in the index and there is no evidence of real understanding of the governance of charitable trusts. Adonis believed he was handing the power to talented people he called sponsor-managers,  and even more ironically, he celebrated that he was leaving decision-making to charismatic and entrepreneurial individuals, often founders, rather than what he called “committees”.  He twice quoted “you don’t find statues to committees”.  Yet the trust model he had set up has much of the power clearly invested in a group of people, a governing board of trustees.  Not only is this almost the opposite of what he wished for, but his favoured option of heroic leadership is no longer the preferred style of education leadership.

The lack of understanding and debate about trust governance continued into the subsequent Coalition government. During parliamentary debates on what became the 2010 Academies Act there was some questioning of the legitimacy of the academy model in terms of the removal of power from local authorities, but very little on the role of trustees.  Proponents of the academies system focused, not on the issues of power and oversight, but on the so-called greater freedoms to headteachers and more autonomy for schools that would emerge out of the system.

However what really was not anticipated at the time of the 2010 Academies Act was that the majority of academies would end up being part of MATs. In 2012 there were only seven sponsors with more than ten schools; at this point, these were usually called chains and had various structures. I have argued for some years that the move from single academy trusts to MATs was the real revolution in governance, and potentially in school improvement too. NGA has just jointly published with ASCL and BrowneJacobson the third edition of guidance for those considering forming or joining a group of schools. Many of the advantages provided by a MAT rely on their schools being within relatively easy distance of each other.

Governing a group of schools is a significantly different prospect from governing a one school trust, and the risks increase as the numbers of pupils being educated increases. The emergence of MATs was not the first time for English schools that this had happened; federations existed – and still can - where maintained schools are governed by a single governing body. What was new was the size of the some of the MATs and how dispersed some of the bigger trusts were. As a schools sector we have never sat down together and reflected honestly on the evidence and experience of MATs, and what the model means for the education system.

Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State, in his recent speech on disadvantage identified the relevance of ‘place’; this is a thread which runs NGA’s report. Those that volunteer to govern generally have a great commitment to and knowledge of their place. There needs to be an assessment of how our complicated system best ensures there is collaboration and levers to provide the best possible education for all pupils in that place. I hope NGA’s report provides the intelligence to have that discussion based on thorough knowledge of both theory and practice of governance, rather than ideology and soundbites.

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