At our Community MATs network meeting last term, there was a distinct sense of anticipation. Despite the virtual room being filled with trustees fresh from governing their organisations’ through the most extraordinary circumstances, there was a clear desire to keep going and to get things done, an aspiration and dedication to the cause of delivering education come what may. Both the network and the views expressed by 1,862 trustees in our 2020 annual governance survey show that though MATs continue to do things in distinct ways, yet the challenges by and large remain the same.
We wrote about these topics last year in Moving MATs forward: the power of governance, but the 2020 annual governance survey MAT report adds to the evidence base, further authenticating its conclusions. One of the biggest of those challenges identified in Moving MATs forward, is knowing how much the trust board and the executive should delegate to academy level and how much the board of trustees must see and decide for themselves. Over the years, the trust board agenda has changed significantly, with many trusts optimising a more strategic outlook. But that can only be done with the right cogs in place: monitoring, reporting, engaging, consulting, communicating to name a few – they all have to be done, but not necessarily by the same small group of people.
There have been controversies along the way, with some trusts doing away altogether with the local tier or reinventing it in a way that cannot in truth be seen as an authentic form of governance. While others have simply kept things going, increasingly a number of MATs are pushing the known boundaries of local MAT governance in an attempt to keep up with the evolving nature of the trust. The role of academy committees has been widely debated, dabbled, pulled and pushed, with some predictions of their demise. But in 2020 we see no evidence of their demise, in fact we see a resurgence in appreciation for them. While the pandemic has led trusts to do things differently for a short period over lockdown, it has also reinforced the importance of community spirit, and the essential role our schools play in keeping that alive. The local tier, especially in MATs over a certain size, and those spread across multiple geographical boundaries, is I believe, the key to the board understanding and knowing – and therefore making the best decision for – the communities it is serving.
While challenges abound, this year’s survey results did give rise to the first real inkling that the advantages of financial management across one organisation with a group of schools may have materialised, at least for some. Although balancing the budget is the concern mentioned by more MAT trustees and academy committee members than any other issue, the percentage of those in MATs (34%) choosing it is lower than the 43% governing maintained schools. Of course we can’t read too much into this, there are MATs out there across the size spectrum that face difficult financial positions, but this finding does build on some emerging green shoots that being part of a group of schools can provide some protection from stormy weather; it has come as a real comfort to many schools during a crisis. NGA has for many years advocated groups of schools, which can be extremely valuable in improving outcomes for pupils, as well as offering increased opportunities for staff. Joining together to form one organisation has also been shown to improve governance – whether these are in local authority federations or MATs. You read more about taking the next step in our joint guidance with ASCL and BrowneJacobson.
Many trusts have proved that they are able to cope with the unpredictable – and the flexibility within their structure has helped them. Many schools within academy trusts have embraced a sense of togetherness with a deep appreciation for the direction provided by their trust board and executive leadership teams – the 2020 survey revealed that most of those governing at academy level were positive about their MAT and the way their voices were heard by their trustees. Overall communication between the layers of governance appears to be improving. There is still work to be done, and there have been reports of MATs who have paused local governance during the pandemic handling this badly and not communicating well with those locally.
The flexibility afforded to MAT governance structures was a theme picked up in Moving MATs Forward: the Power of Governance, where we discussed how trusts with a strong community ethos have engaged positively with the local voice, and so have engaged more with their local tiers of governance. This can and has proven to result in a collective sense of understanding for many trusts during 2020, which in turn leads to active support for and championing of decision-making across the trust and within their communities. But success has been dependant on communication, and we know there are a fair share of academy committee members out there who are still not best pleased with how the trust board has or hasn’t connected with them over recent months.
As trust boards continue to review their governance arrangements, lets give a shout out to the governance professionals supporting their boards. These truly important and influential individuals have proved to be key asset for many trusts to date, and we are delighted to support the development of this position with a new model role description for governance professionals, so do consider this key role as your trust continues on its evolving journey.
Finally, we know from NGA’s extensive work with MATs that in some organisations governance is working extremely well, but in many that process of reviewing governance still needs to be taken seriously. There is much practice to learn from, and as with governance in all sectors, it is the people, their understanding of the role and responsibility, their commitment, their behaviours in and outside meetings, and the strength of their relationships amongst the board and with senior executive leaders that make the difference.