Release date: 31/01/2020

Being a chair of a multi academy trust (MAT) is an extremely significant voluntary role with duties such as maintaining effective governance and engaging with lead executives taking up a significant amount of time. Yet chairs are sometimes reluctant to use tactics to make their role more sustainable, according to new research from the National Governance Association (NGA).

Phase one of the research, which surveyed 93 MAT chairs in England, revealed that MAT chairs are spending on average 50 days a year fulfilling their role. A series of follow-up interviews to explore what responsibilities and duties MAT chairs undertake and why, and how and if the role can be made sustainable and manageable, concludes that “those chairing should look at their workload and identify whether they are promising too much time to the role and promoting an unsustainable workload that puts off future successors”.

Commenting on the report, Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said: “There is a good news angle to our findings: the commitment, resilience and passion of MAT chairs interviewed is highly commendable. Their significant contribution to the education of children in England is invisible to many and needs to be acknowledged. But there is also a warning to the system in terms of ensuring the sustainability of the role. Whilst the MAT chairs interviewed give freely as they believe they are contributing positively to the MATs development, we must not take for granted that volunteers will rather miraculously continue to appear. Modelling the chair’s role as something which is sustainable and realistic is essential if MATs are to benefit from talented successors leading their board. Getting this balance right and ensuring everyone on the board plays their part is an age old challenge, but one which this research shows is more important than ever before and one that the chair should drive.”

Maintaining effective governance in the trust accounted for a significant amount of time and half of MAT chairs either chaired, attended or sat on an academy committee which constituted an additional 100.6 hours of work for the chairs on average. Interviewees who were involved in local tiers of governance cited creating and maintaining direct communication links with individual schools; understanding further the school’s context and seeing first-hand the impact of the MAT on the school; and ensuring that those governing at a local level felt listened to and acknowledged within their role as reasons for doing so. However, MAT chairs who had withdrawn from involvement in local governance cited benefits of clearer lines of accountability, a more ‘strategic’ trust board, and allowing more time for performing the role as MAT chair. NGA recommends that MAT boards commit to a separation of individuals on each tier in the governance structure to prevent blurred lines of accountability with other means of communicating between academy committees and the board of trustees.

Engaging with the chief executive was the second most time-consuming duty: chairs reported spending 73.8 hours (just under 10 days) a year on this. Several MAT chairs said that their lead executive influenced the amount of time it took to chair their MAT and the ‘strength’ and ‘experience’ of the executive team could positively and negatively impact the time commitment. The interviews identified that chairs are often seen as a ‘stop-gap’ individual who can fill in where extra work needs to be done by taking on executive roles. Some MAT chairs characterised the CEO’s role as “lonely” and said that they “worked closely” with the CEO, occasionally taking on duties in their absence even if this meant veering into operational tasks. However, other chairs were focused on not straying into these operational tasks, with one chair emphasising that this was “really important because the [chair’s] workload is big enough as it is without adding on additional responsibilities”. NGA advises that MAT chairs and CEOs need establish a clear understanding of the differentiation between executive and governance functions, which should be reflected in the MAT’s scheme of delegation.

Other core duties of MAT chair’s roles included trustee recruitment; collaboration with other MATs; financial responsibilities; dealing with complaints and exclusions; conducting stakeholder engagement; and being the public face of the organisation.

The employment status of the chairs themselves was one of the largest influences on the time commitment associated with the role. 78% of the MAT chairs interviewed were retired or semi-retired (and therefore able to spend significantly longer on their governance roles and responsibilities) or self-employed (and therefore had the benefit of determining their work schedule). Retirees devoted nearly a third more time than their employed counterparts. A majority said that they would not chair their MAT if they were in full-time employment while others emphasised it would be challenging. One chair stated that they were reluctant to appoint non-retired trustees to the board as those in employment “cannot give up their time to be at the beck and call of the MAT” whereas “a retiree can probably do that”.

Despite the heavy workload, over a quarter (28.3%) of MAT chairs had not yet explored strategies which could help make the time commitment of their role more manageable. Examining the tactics used by those chairs who had tried to make their role more sustainable, delegation to others on the governing board, executives and the local governance tier was the most commonly cited approach to reducing workload. A third of interviewees however expressed hesitancy over delegating to others on the board for fear that increasing the time demanded of these individuals would lead them to resign.

Other chairs had used tactics of improving communication techniques; becoming a more strategic chair by taking a high-level approach to the management of the role; and securing the services of and/or better utilising an effective clerk especially to improve communications throughout the trust.

Several of the chairs interviewed expressed concern at the sustainability of the role with one chair commenting that “nobody should underestimate the amount of time, energy, and personal investment … that is needed to be an effective chair and to play a full and meaningful part in the development of a trust to ensure that it’s delivering what it needs to be deliver for children and young people”, with another chair questioning whether trusts can continue to “find people who have the capacity and the time to take on these roles effectively”. To support trust boards in ensuring their future leadership, the report suggests practical recommendations including a co-chairing model, effective reporting and communication, and utilising their clerk/governance professional more efficiently.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 18 MAT chairs, who carry additional duties to those governing in standalone school settings, and these findings build on the interim research released in April last year.

Tom Fellows, research manager at the National Governance Association added: “That MAT chairs are spending so much time and energy on their role requires a real pause for reflection. Trust boards are responsible for larger budgets and more pupils than those in other school settings, as well as overseeing multiple sites. Our research shows the differences in how MATs are being run, how they are adapting to their own evolution and the experience of the chief executive also affects the time a chair has to spend. The tension between the role of the trustee being both voluntary and a position holding tremendous accountability needs to be managed well, and the report reveals ways of doing this.”

Read the report in full

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