I find myself more and more wanting to take absolutely every opportunity to thank the volunteers who govern our schools. I have now been at the National Governance Association (NGA) for ten years and yet I continue day-in day-out to be impressed by the people who carry out this important role.
NGA’s charitable objective is to improve school governance, not to act as the cheerleaders for governors and trustees. However, the more evidence we gather at NGA, the contribution being made becomes more obvious, at least obvious to us who exist to support them. But not yet obvious to all within the education sector and certainly not to those outside its walls, so in 2020 NGA aims to make the work of governing boards more visible. And I hope this new report on how MAT chairs spend their time plays a part in that.
Four years ago an NGA research project considered the time to chair, primarily covering single schools, and found considerable variation between individuals. Chairs also employed full-time tended to adopt tactics to reduce the time taken by the voluntary role. Those findings helped us to fine tune the advice we give to chairs and boards, for example in The Chair’s Handbook.
But in 2018, after carrying out the first couple of our multi academy trust (MAT) case studies, we decided we needed to explore in more detail the role of chairing a MAT which appeared to be requiring even more time and commitment than other charities. So here we are 18 months later after both a quantitative and a qualitative phase. The numbers tell us that on average the chair of a MAT gives 50 days a year, but that is the middle of a considerable range. This is the equivalent of a day a week apart from Christmas and a week in August, although clearly the time isn’t evenly spaced. That required a real pause for reflection.
Although many MAT chairs would prefer their time commitment to be reduced, they continue to give freely as they believe they are contributing positively to the MATs development and in return have a sense of satisfaction in witnessing the MAT’s successes and the education its schools provides to pupils. That is the good news angle to this, but there is also a warning to the system in terms of ensuring the sustainability of the role.
We must not take for granted that volunteers will rather miraculously continue to appear. There is a need to be more proactive in this recruitment and NGA aims to play our part in this as well as in emphasising that corporate collective responsibility. Our guidance will continue to emphasise the ways in which the role can be carried out in a reasonable time. This very much includes the delegation of tasks to others on the board, but also to the executive. There are times when chairs are compensating for lack of capacity or knowledge within the executive team, going beyond the role of support or acting as a sounding board. It was clear that in some MATs the trust’s governance professional had rightly relieved board members of many tasks, but across the sector more can be done to provide the required professional support.
Although the literature tells us that the chair of the board is a hugely important role in any organisation, the chair is actually first amongst equals and has no power as an individual. It is the board which has the authority and makes the decisions. Getting this balance right and ensuring everyone on the board plays their part is an age old challenge and one that the chair should lead. The research has shown that this has sometimes proved difficult to achieve and also that boards generally had not spent much time on their own development, as opposed to the development of the MAT.
This culture needs to be challenged. In its Governance Handbook, the Department for Education (DfE) has a significant section on the importance of board evaluation; indeed it is one of their six features of effective governance. Reflection needs to be a key moment in the activity of a governing board, which includes the chair reflecting on both their own contribution and the contribution of other individuals, putting the needs of the organisation first by being open to the changing needs of the organisation. By harnessing the opportunity to learn from the past, to share and take in feedback while openly assessing the needs of the future, the board takes accountability to the next level. Our researchers when coming to their objective conclusions have not over-emphasised this as NGA clearly has a conflict of interest here. Our Leading Governance programme has the biggest reach of funded governance development programmes. However I have no hesitation in recommending Leading Governance’s board programme which is bespoke to each trust as we are well aware that their needs are different; it is a minimum of £2,500 investment from the DfE for each MAT.
The role of vice chairs is under-utilised, and seems a very good place to start making the work of the board more manageable. Some boards didn’t have a vice chair at all, and having two was unusual. As well as sharing current tasks, two vice chairs also makes it much more likely that there will be a successor. The practice of co-chairs, which is adopted in some single schools, does not seem to have used by MATs. There may also be a need to embrace the practice, common in the charity sector, of recruiting a chair externally where needs be. Our Future Chairs project funded through Inspiring Governance has begun to change hearts and minds for single schools, and we will be highlighting this possibility for MATs too.
This research emphasises the need for succession planning for the board. Change is healthy and in line with many other sectors, NGA suggests that trustees coming towards the end of their second term of office (eight years) on a board should consider whether a third would actually be best for the organisation. NGA offers succession planning guidance and workshops. At present many chairs have been involved in setting up the MATs and have a very strong attachment to them and understandably do not want that important relationship to end. Becoming a member of the trust on leaving the board of trustees is a way to continue that connection.
Diverse boards bringing together people with different views, background, experience, skills and knowledge make for strong boards with good debate and decision-making. Our Everyone on Board campaign is beginning to pay dividends, although there is more progress needed. MAT boards of trustees are less advanced than other boards in the sector, especially when it comes to women and BAME trustees. Our School Governance in 2019 survey tells us that those trustees are also less likely to become chairs in MATs, so we are missing out on a potential source of talented successors.
Lastly thank you to all our participating chairs; you have contributed to the intelligence in the sector. Thank you not just for the time given to this research, but more importantly to your trusts, with all the thought and the expertise that this represents. I would also like to acknowledge all the 1,206 chairs of MATs across England who are making these contributions quietly under the radar together with their vice chairs and fellow trustees. The system - and most importantly its pupils - could not thrive without you.