Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

11/11/2016 16:39:21

Trustees’ Week is an annual event to showcase the great work that trustees do and highlight opportunities for people from all walks of life to get involved and make a difference.

At the National Governors’ Association (NGA) we value what we can learn from other sectors, especially the third sector (not-for-profit), where we see the most cultural parallels with governance in schools. Trustees generally share many of the same challenges that school governors face, and some of you governing in academies will actually be trustees.  

In the run up to Trustees Week 2016, we’ve been thinking about how schools can learn from trusteeship as practiced in the third sector. However it is not all one way traffic: the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has recently suggested trustees of charities should be able to benefit from the rights school governors have to time off work. 

Governing boards in the two sectors have a lot of issues in common: such as board competencies; keeping strategic and not stepping into the operational; trust within the board; strong relationships between chairs and chief executives; ensuring the organisation delivers its objects in the interests of its beneficiaries.  As a school governor, you would recognise all the governance debates being had in the third sector, taking good decisions on chief executive pay (an issue we have been raising: see Gillian’s blog on pay).

Taking it seriously

No sector gets it right all the time, but the culture in the third sector is generally to take governance seriously, not just within the board but also among senior executives.  And this is not just because they need to comply with charity law and often company law, but also because chief executives understand clearly they are first and foremost held to account by the board of trustees; other forms of accountability (such as Ofsted, national performance tables) may not exist or are not seen as taking precedence. There is also a great respect for volunteering (indeed the third sector used to be termed the voluntary sector), although there is still a debate about when it becomes the right thing to pay trustees.

Chief executives are not on third sector board of trustees which holds them to account, a point we have been making to the Department for Education for some years, and an issue which they have now taken some notice of, with one Regional Schools Commissioner recently stating academy chief executives should “preferably not” be a trustee.

Senior leaders in schools need to understand and respect the role of governance; we have been making this point persistently during the review of the national professional qualifications for school leaders.  At the same time there are several initiatives to see how governance and leadership development should be supported in the third sector.  

Getting the right people around the table

Recruiting skilled people to govern in either sector is not easy, but there is a trick schools can learn from the third sector:  if you search for ‘Trustee’ using the Guardian Jobs website, you get about 150 results. Not one of these (as of Thursday 10 November) is for a school. Why not? Aren’t you looking for the same kinds of people?  Here’s a quote from one of the adverts:

“We are looking for three new trustees who want to use their experience and expertise to help us beat blood cancer and change the world for blood cancer patients.”

It wouldn’t be too hard to adapt something like that for your school, but where possible without paying for advertising.

But in the schools sector, we have the advantage of a Department for Education funded service for school governance recruitment, Inspiring Governance: if you have a vacancy or two on your governing board, do register them with Inspiring Governance as there are large numbers of volunteers waiting for a school governing board to contact them.  As part of the service, NGA will be supporting newly placed volunteers so they are equipped to play their part effectively, and we are also piloting a chair’s recruitment service; for further information, contact Judith Hicks (Judith.hicks@nga.org.uk).

Knowing your role and responsibilities

NGA has a whole suite of materials for governors of schools on their role and responsibilities, but this month at the Academies Show, NGA is publishing a new induction guide for trustees in Multi Academy Trusts:

Welcome to a Multi Academy Trust provides high-quality practical information on MAT governance structures and practice for new trustees and senior leaders, whether they have previous experience of governing in standalone schools or organisations in other sectors.

Click here to pre order.

Time for reflection

NGA has spent a lot of time developing self-review resources for school governors and trustees, which should make the task less bothersome, such as 21 Questions for MAT boards, and Evalu8, a review tool based on these 21 questions.  Self-review does take a bit of time but our annual review with TES tells us that just over half of school governing boards do now undertake reviews of their effectiveness, and this may well now be more prevalent amongst schools than in the third sector.

The Charity Commission’s excellent publication The Essential Trustee (2016) says that the chair “takes the lead on ensuring that trustees comply with their duties and the charity is well governed”. The NCVO’s Good Trustee Guide goes into more detail, asking whether you “provide an opportunity for individual trustees to reflect on their role, contribution and support needs” and includes some review exercises. NCVO’s Good Governance publication cites case studies, one of which is of a school where the chair circulates a questionnaire to all governors, following up with a conversation with each.  NGA has also been promoting reviews by the chairs of each individual board members, and the number of chairs doing this is growing, but the 2-16 survey shows it is still only 1 in 8.  We have a tool to help you do this: please do consider introducing this practice in 2016/17.

It’s not just about ensuring all members of the board are fully involved; there’s another important reason to do this. Many trustees and governors think, with some justification, that the role of governing can be thankless. So individual conversations provide the opportunity to thank colleagues in a personal way for the difference they make to the school and its pupils.

Saying thank you

NGA also wishes to thank all of you who volunteer to govern, and as part of that we will be awarding great practice in Spring 2017.  But this month is the last opportunity to nominate a board to be considered for those Outstanding Governance Awards: Link to awards.


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