Release date: 15/11/2019

To help those governing academy trusts to understand the role of members in their governance structure, the National Governance Association (NGA) has updated its comprehensive guidance.

Members are responsible for assessing if the board of trustees is performing well and ensuring that the trust’s charitable object – which for most can be summarised as ‘advancing education for the public benefit’ – is being fulfilled. However, the role is often “misunderstood” and “not utilised in an effective way” according to the guidance.

The guidance suggests that academy trust members focus on two key areas in holding the board to account – pupil outcomes and financial oversight, providing a list of questions that members can use in their role.

It reinforces the importance of separation between trustees and members: these should not be the same people “for the simple reason that it is difficult to hold oneself to account”. Most trusts are still operating with overlap between the layers of governance – 60.3% of trustees responding to the School Governance in 2019 survey said that members in their MAT were also trustees, though this is a reduction from 73% in 2018.

The confusion around the role of members was also identified as a challenge facing multi academy trusts in NGA’s Moving MATs forward: the power of governance report which said “whereas some [members] were not carrying out their duties at all, other members were completing tasks beyond their remit, such as setting the agenda for trustee meetings. Some MATs have not spent enough time thinking about what the members are supposed to do, simply having them because they are a legal requirement rather than seeing them as a governance asset.”

The guidance is also very clear about what members do not do including telling the trustees how to run the trust and setting the board’s priorities.

Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The role of members in multi-academy trusts is crucially important, but widely misunderstood. Government guidance, and the DfE’s model articles of association, have changed over time, and many trusts are operating under arrangements which are no longer considered best practice. This updated NGA guidance will help everyone involved in a multi-academy trust to understand what members do and don’t do, and to ensure their trust governance is robust and effective.”

Mark Blois, Partner at Browne Jacobson LLP said “The role of members in academies and multi-academy trusts has evolved significantly over the last few years and the expectation is now that members should operate as a high-level but vigilant check and balance to the work of the trustees and sometimes take direct action to secure effective governance. It is therefore vitally important that members are well informed about their roles and responsibilities and in this context the NGA’s members’ guidance is a welcome and valuable resource.”    

Sam Henson, director of policy and information at the National Governance Association said: “Exactly who academy trust members are, how they got there and the role they have, or at least should have, has been a debate facing academy trusts for quite some time. We have seen many trusts battle with getting this role right, and a number of myths and misconceptions have perpetuated in the sector for the best part of a decade. We hope the revised version of this guidance provide a position of clarity, giving members, trustees, the executive and the local tier a clear and firm understanding of the limited yet distinct role members should play in the development of their trust.” 

Download the guidance here.

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