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Governing board roles

Back to the essentials: new governance guides for trusts and maintained schools

Sam Henson reflects on the development of the DfE's new guides and how NGA members helped to shape them.

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The Department for Education (DfE) has today published new governance guides to replace the longstanding Governance Handbook. The guides are designed to cater separately to the academy trust and maintained school governance sectors and ensure that relevant information is easily accessible.

The education sector has undergone significant transformation in recent years, making it challenging to keep pace. However, when we look at the role of governance in isolation, the pillars of good governance – accountability, ethics, and effectiveness – remain constant. Governance acts as the foundation of organisational success and stability, and so it comes as a relief that neither the philosophy nor practice of governance is swept up in the storm of updates that wearies the sector from time to time. In fact, the principles of good governance remain remarkably consistent.

Back to basics

The DfE’s refreshed governance guides (which if anything are more consolidation than transformation) offer the chance to go back to basics, and clarify what the basics are, and what they are not. This is important – no one starts to build a house by trying to put tiles on the roof; the groundwork has to be in place for the rest of the structure to take shape and offer its full potential. School and trust governance is not something to scrimp and save on – it serves as the foundation for building an organisation that thrives, rather than an organisation that is at risk of failing.

The new guides build on the DfE’s recently introduced, subtle yet significant, changes to how it approaches governance in the sector. The first priority for the department was to differentiate between trust governance and maintained school governance – this is a change that we welcome. While the underlying principles of getting governance right are the same not just for schools and trusts but for organisations generally, there are of course key differences that need to be reflected in governance practice and organisational understanding.

The release of two distinct guides replaces the cumbersome sector-wide handbook, reflecting the evolving needs and expectations of both governing boards and governance professionals.

What’s new?

The Academy Trust Governance Guide is structured around the DfE’s Trust Quality Descriptions, incorporating policy changes from the past 18 months and serving as a timely reminder of the evolving nature of governance practices.

For trusts, the ‘purpose of governance’ has replaced the previous three ‘core functions’, now setting out the focus for those who govern: to provide strategic leadership, accountability and assurance, and strategic engagement. Whilst the magic number of three remains, the DfE has incorporated engagement – something NGA has long-argued should be recognised as a core function. After all, governance decision making – no matter the setting – is as much about relationships and community as it is about financial oversight and holding leaders to account.

A notable change for trusts is the rebranding of local governing bodies (LGBs) as local committees, signifying a shift towards more inclusive terminology and a broader commitment to fostering collaboration and inclusivity.

The governance handbook has always served as essential reading for governance professionals. The guides now better recognise the pivotal nature of this role, including clear direction on governance professional appraisal.

Shaped by NGA members

NGA played an important role in informing the guides, representing the diverse perspectives and experiences our members bring us as governors and trustees working on the ground. NGA has ensured that the voices of those on the front lines of education governance were heard. This collaborative effort reflects the Department’s approach to calling on the sector to support effective governance.

A clear priority during our conversations with the DfE was communicating workload challenges for boards. The DfE listened and made direct changes as a result. For example, the DfE’s list of statutory policies has now been incorporated into the guides. Procedural and ‘live documents’ have been removed from the list, meaning that it now provides a concise summary of key policies. Aligned with NGA's ongoing workload project, the streamlined guides now prioritise efficiency and have a sharper focus on governance ‘musts’.

The evolution of the DfE’s governance guidance is a continuous journey, with NGA playing a key role in its refinement and improvement. As models for academy trust and maintained school governance continue to diverge, NGA's resources have evolved, ensuring that our members are equipped to address emerging challenges. Signposted within the guides are a wealth of NGA tools, guidance and insights, reflecting the DfE's confidence in our expertise and our role in informing and empowering those who govern.

In conclusion

Despite these updates, the day-to-day activities of governance remain largely unchanged. In the face of mounting workload pressures and resource constraints, the reliability of established governance practices serves as a guiding light for boards navigating the complexities of the education landscape.

NGA members can refer to our summaries of the Academy Trust Governance Guide and Maintained Schools Governance Guide for further information.

Sam Henson
Sam Henson

Deputy Chief Executive

Sam oversees NGA’s policy, communications and research services, supporting NGA to achieve positive change in the policy of school governance. He is the policy lead for NGA’s work on the governance of multi academy trusts.