Failing to view a multi academy trust (MAT) as a single organisation which brings a fundamental change to the identity of schools within it is one of the key challenges facing MATs, according to Moving MATs forward: the power of governance, a new comprehensive report from the National Governance Association (NGA).
Autonomy – which is still lauded by many in the sector as one of the benefits of joining a MAT – is not attainable for schools once they have become part of a MAT, the report states. The MAT’s board of trustees can vary how it asserts its control and how much it will delegate to the both the professionals and those governing at local level. Misunderstanding where power and strategic decision-making lies can have profound implications, for example on resource distribution, school improvement plans and growth.
Governing a MAT is significantly different from governing a single school; yet, the report argues, MATs are operating and being governed within frameworks and language rooted in a system designed for single schools. This system itself as well of the understanding of it has not evolved to meet the challenges and distinctiveness of MAT governance. Overcoming these challenges requires MATs being willing to share and learn from each other and from the third sector, and relies on policymakers and the wider education sector embrace the knowledge and experience gained over the past decade. This will require collaboration, time and respect for the role of governance.
Drawn from NGA’s extensive evidence base, the report explores eleven issues with governance and oversight which both impact a board’s ability to carry out its core functions:
- Getting the right people around the table
- Organisational identity
- Ethics, culture, behaviour and relationships
- Who does what?
- Community engagement and accountability to stakeholders
- The future of the local tier
- Communication and information management
- Due diligence and risk management
- Growth, location and sustainability
- Oversight, review and holding trusts to account
- System leadership: collaboration and support other MATs and schools to improve
From the insights gained through the report, NGA have identified four questions which need thorough honest and open debate across the sector:
- Is the role of trust members in MATs currently concentrating power in the hands of a small number of individuals?
- Is school improvement best served by geographically dispersed MATs?
- Should growing MATs above a certain size be discouraged?
- What are the implications of the changing role of school leaders in MATs and how might these work best?
Sam Henson, director of policy and information at the National Governance Association said: “NGA has seen many good people governing and leading MATs, aiming to work in the interests of children. Failures in MATs are rare but influential with a small amount of unethical practice creating the public perception of a corrupt sector. Although governance is widely recognised as one of the major challenges in the sector, significant progress is yet to get underway in getting governance right. We know from NGA’s extensive evidence base how to govern well, and this report shares practical steps for MAT trustees to take based on what has worked well.”
Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said, “There needs to be an informed assessment of how our complicated school system ensures there is shared learning, collaboration and levers to provide the best possible education for all pupils in each and every place in England. It is time to properly debate and resolve these fundamental issues which for too long have obscured the conversation about MATs. We want to enable the sector and those governing and leading it to move forward positively, ethically, effectively and with the right level of accountability to the right people for the right things. 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.”
Read the full report.