Why being clear on the trustee role in academy trusts is key to success

17/11/2017 09:53:20 | with 0 comments

Author: Sam Henson, Head of Information at National Governance Association 

Trustees’ Week provides an annual platform to applaud the crucial work that trustees do while also emphasising exactly what the role is. In the charity sector, trustee is a familiar term, but although all those governing at board level in academies are charity trustees, the role is less familiar.  

The move to governance through trusteeship has often been underplayed. In a schools context, the word trustee remains unclear even to some taking on the role. With the rise of academy trusts, and in particular MATs, prominence and celebration has usually been reserved for the dazzling spotlights of executive leadership, leaving governance of trusts in a sometimes shadowy hinterland.  But our intelligence gathered from working with academy trusts up and down the country has taught one very important lesson: trusts are far more likely to succeed where all those involved are clear on roles and responsibilities.

The first thing is ascertaining exactly who the trustees actually are. This can be more complicated than you think, with various terminology used by different trusts to describe different governance layers. Some academy trusts, particularly single academy trusts, still refer to their trustees as governors, leading to assumptions that being a trustee is no different to governing in a maintained school. While unhelpful, this is perhaps understandable, especially when drawing parallels of governing just one school. 

But MAT trustees in particular have more to think about in terms of sheer scale and organisation, and it is therefore vital that distinction of governance tiers is correctly identified and neatly communicated (your scheme of delegation will be crucial here) especially when more players are involved at a local school level, such as academy committees. Regardless of whether a trust consists of one or multiple schools, it is important to recognise the differences between governing in a maintained school and governing as a trustee.

While governing boards in both the maintained and academies sector are accountable bodies in law which must act in the best interest of the children, academy trust boards differ in that the trust is a charitable company limited by guarantee. This means that trustees are bound by both charity and company law, with the terms ‘trustees’ and ‘directors’ often being used interchangeably as a result. Each carry their own responsibilities (you can find these on the NGA trustee description and person specification) but NGA has long since opted to stick with the term trustee, promoting the charitable nature of the role.  And we think governance in schools can and should draw a lot from the practice in the charity sector overall, but this is still not common.

Academies may be exempt charities, but that just means exempt from direct regulation by the Charity Commission, not exempt from charity law. Nor is it just an accounting mechanism. While governance, is governance is governance, trusteeship is subtly different to maintained governance – in essence those who are charity trustees need to make the shift in thinking. You are a not a school or group of schools who just happen to be charities, you are charities whose charitable objectives are to improve education. Thought of in that light, strategy, practice and governance might just change.

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