Release date: 26/01/2018

The role of governors in academy schools

Coverage in Tes today (26/01/2018) explores the role of governors in academy schools (this is an abridged article of the printed version), reporting “the rise of multi academy trusts has meant that tens of thousands of traditional school governor posts have been lost, with their power and responsibility over schools stripped away.” With power and responsibility for individual schools “shifting to the single boards of the larger organisations school have joined”, Tes asks, “Are we witnessing the slow death of the school governor, and, if so, does it matter?”

In the article, Emma Knights describes the transformation as “absolutely huge” and raises concerns that the power and responsibility being removed from governing boards means that the role will be less attractive to volunteers who do not want to remain on “powerless committees.”

Tes cite examples of how and why different MATs structure and practice governance, and debates between benefits of having greater support from professional MAT staff and the contrast that this may “disempower and deskill” local boards.

NGA’s view is that MATs should be clear and honest with those governing at a local level about the role. All need to be clear where decision-making responsibility lies. Governing at academy level in a MAT is different to being on the governing board of single school, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be rewarding. For some, monitoring pupil progress and wellbeing at their local school is extremely valuable and not having to oversee HR and finances might just be a bonus. Clarity is key. Repeating this call in the Tes article, Emma Knights says trusts should be “clear about what value” local governance adds and that the local governance should be “real and robust.”

Regardless of whether the school is governed as a single school or in a MAT, there must be a mechanism for parents, pupils and other community stakeholders to have views listened to and taken on board. All MATS and single academy trusts should have a scheme of delegation that defines lines of accountability and responsibility. This makes clear the structure of governance in their school(s), ensures that everyone knows their role, and understands how decisions are made. NGA produces a Model Scheme of Delegation for its members to support this. 

Expanding membership of academy trusts

Membership of academy trusts and the importance of local governance and legitimacy are issues that NGA, and others, have repeatedly made a point about – that a small group of members with the power to appoint and remove trustees is not the best model for governing a public service. We have previously argued that schools need to ensure accountability to the parents and the local community and proposed opening membership to a wider group of people in order to truly achieve this.

Emma Knights is quoted in Tes in relation to a piece she has written (this is an abridged article of the printed version) on members of academy trusts and exploring a third sector model for academy governance. Indeed, the DfE recognised that its original model was not entirely robust, hence the fact that the Academies Financial Handbook now says:

“The Department’s minimum requirement before entering into a funding agreement is that academy trusts have at least three members, although the Department’s recommendation is for trusts to have at least five members wherever possible… The Department’s view is that the most robust governance structures will have a significant degree of separation between the individuals who are members and those who are trustees. If members also sit on the board of trustees this may reduce the objectivity with which the members can exercise their powers. The Department’s recommendation is for a majority of members to be independent of the board of trustees.”

An argument for not widening the number of members is that it could lead to the governance being hijacked by those with a particular agenda. This is of course a potential problem, but not insurmountable and it is difficult to see how it is more likely to happen in a widened membership structure, than one in which a very small number of people have the right to appoint and remove trustees. Indeed many charities already operate with a model.

Emma says in her article, “Of course not every member will turn up, but the most interested will and in times of crisis quite rightly many others will arrive. I am not a completely fluffy idealist; having worked in membership organisations for a considerable amount of time, I know very well that effort has to be made to engage a broad cross section of people and much thought is needed about how to attract those who are least likely to get on a soapbox.”

By having parents and other interested people in the community as members, communities would “have power over such an important public service as our state schools”, transforming “the legitimacy of the academy governance model” Emma argues. 

Being a trustee of a multi academy trust is a difficult and highly responsible role and as always, the National Governance Association takes its hat off to those committed, skilled volunteers giving their time in the interests of pupils. Our Community MATs network offers a forum to share experiences and resources in order to improve confidence and the effectiveness of MAT governance.

Related reading:

Academy governance: ‘We need a fundamental rethink about who the members are and how they are appointed’

When it comes to local governance, we want to have our cake and eat it... but perhaps we can 

The importance of governance: democracy, legitimacy and engagement 

Governance is tricky, why make it risky too?

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