Release date: 08/10/2020

Members of academy trusts have a distinct but limited role as the guardians of governance but new material from the Department for Education (DfE) published today (8 October) sends a mixed message about the role and fails to reinforce the need for complete separation between layers of governance.

For some years academy trusts have sought more clarity on the role and its responsibilities and in the absence of official guidance, NGA first published guidance in September 2018, updated in November 2019, to give clarity on the role. NGA’s guidance stresses the need to avoid duplicating the role of the trust board or assuming the role of trustees. Members are there to provide oversight of the board of trustees.

Newly published role descriptors, which sit alongside a letter to academy trust members from Baroness Berridge (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System), set out that “the department’s strong preference is therefore for at least the majority of members to not sit on the trust board” but goes on to say “one way in which some academy trusts decide to keep members informed and engaged is for one or more members to also serve as an academy trustee on the trust board, which may be through appointing the chair of the academy trustees as a member.” This is contradictory and adds confusion on the matter by simultaneously discouraging sitting at multiple levels and highlighting it as a method of communication. NGA is clear that complete separation between trustees and members should be the requirement.

NGA’s annual school governance survey 2020 found that 54% of MAT chairs who responded were members as were 33% of trustees in non-chairing roles. It also found that 32% of respondents used ‘trustees who are also a member of the trust’ as a method of communicating between layers of governance. A study published yesterday by the DfE and NFER reinforces this with the finding  of “a great deal of overlap across different tiers of governance structures. For example, 57% of chairs of SAT trust boards and 51% of chairs of MAT trust boards reported that they were also a Member for the trust. Similarly, 21% of SAT trustees and 20% of MAT trustees reported they were also Members for the trust.”

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said: “The model of membership in academy trusts, where the power of checks and balances is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people at the top of a trust is not a good one – NGA identified this some years ago. The Department for Education seems to have concerns that the oversight of trustees by trust members is still not as well understood as it should be and yet fails to make that simple change to prevent an individual being in the position of overseeing themselves. Instead it misunderstands the point of complete separation. Over the years NGA has had many conversations with the DfE about this and has never been given a reason for their reticence to improve the model of governance. We hope that trusts reviewing their governance will understand the problem and rectify this conflict themselves without needing to be told from on-high. This is essential for good governance and oversight because it is decidedly difficult to challenge yourself fully and objectively. This is not a criticism of any individuals but a consequence of the flawed model developed without much governance knowledge or reflection in the early days of the academies movement which didn’t build into the system the required level of accountability that public services and public expenditure deserve.”

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