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Governing in a multi academy trust – three debates


Over half of pupils in England are educated in academies, but because of the different governance structure, under half of volunteers involved in school governance (43%) govern in academy trusts. The vast majority of those (86%) are within multi academy trusts (MATs). Of the estimated 92 thousand volunteers governing in MATs, 12 thousand are trustees and 80 thousand are local governors at academy level. NGA’s recent report looked at the experiences and views of both trustees and local governors of MATs.  

The responsibility MATs carry in running state schools makes them part of a crucial public service, funded by public money and overseen by their board of trustees. It is important to remember, as demonstrated by our survey respondents, that trusts are not a uniform sector; they are diverse in many ways, including size, ethos, geographic spread and how much control they retain at their centre.  

Despite social media being muted over the past 10 days in homage to the late Queen Elizabeth, the findings of our first report on Governing in a MAT triggered three main debates: 

1. Not much is known about local governance in MATs: does it actually exist and what is the point of it?  

The evidence tells us local governance is here to stay. This survey shows almost all MATs include a local tier in their governance structure and remain committed to it. This is an important finding, as some have downplayed its importance over the years, leading some to the unfounded conclusion that the local tier was a disposable part of the MAT system. Our findings show this couldn’t be further from the truth and the Opportunity for All White Paper also makes it clear that local governance is an important component of strong strategic trust governance. 

Local governance at academy level in a MAT is the big difference compared with governing a single academy trust (SAT) and the challenge is to make is meaningful. NGA has been writing about this topic for years now and charting the progress, and much progress has been made. So I was sorry to hear authoritative voices talk about the lack of clarity that still exists. Of course there will be some trusts where the scheme of delegation has not been discussed in a meaningful manner, but this should no longer be widespread. 

So, what does it look like? More than nine in ten MATs have returned to the tried and tested model of one committee per academy and another six per cent have committees which cover more than one school. The second report in this series captures the reduction in size of boards over the past decade, but otherwise innovation which some had hoped for and NGA sought to champion has not triumphed. This should not be seen as a failure but a system reaching the next state of its maturity and improving its understanding of what works and what adds value.  

But what exactly does it do? In practice the minimum tends to be the 3 S’s: standards, safeguarding and stakeholders. It may be a little different from MAT to MAT as the trustees decide how much to delegate to academy level and how much the board of trustees must see and decide for themselves. But anything less than this does becomes rather meaningless. Local governance helps to ensure stakeholder voices are heard, but as this report reveals, it is more than a stakeholder consultation forum.  

But does local governance make a difference? That will depend on how it is practiced. NGA summarised what good local governance looks like six months when we set some expectations and provided the sector with updated questions for self review for local governance alongside those for MAT themselves. There are some local governors who would questions the usefulness of how it works in their trust and there is much now they can point the trustees to in terms of review. The members of a trust should require a report on governance once a year and local governors should be invited to attend their AGM: use these routes to make your case and to seek improvements.  

2. MATs are not getting better at community and parental engagement 

It was disappointing to see that this year, the number of respondents who felt that their MAT effectively engaged with parents and the wider school community dipped to just over half (55%). There is still significant work to do to convince even all those involved in governance that this is working well, let alone parents themselves, who still often have no concept of the trust which remains distant to them, sometimes literally. MATs need to work harder at engaging with parents and the community, and by this I do mean the whole trust. Trust boards and trust executives need to understand what stakeholders think, but they will leave most of the engagement activities to local governors and headteachers.  There needs to be two-way communication with academy committees able to transfer what they have learnt up to the trust. The white paper also promoted the importance of parent and community engagement, but this should be self-evidently part of good leadership and good governance. 

3. Is the previous Secretary of State’s vision of all schools joining a MAT within the coming decade feasible? 

Even though the Schools Bill taking forward some of the white paper’s measures has had a very tough time in the House of Lords last term, we assume that this vision remains, but will it be such an important part of the new Secretary of State’s strategy remains to be seen.  

The appetite of SATs and maintained schools to consider joining or forming a trust is increasing, but only slowly. Despite the evidence paper published alongside the white paper, there is still much work to do to convince many of our respondents that this is indeed the right way forward for the future of their school and pupils.

The white paper suggested trusts should grow to ten schools or 7500 pupils; however the survey shows it is trusts already bigger than ten schools which are more likely to grow. If the new Secretary of State really wants to see this vision achieved, the DfE will need to be more proactive and coherent in supporting the growth of smaller trusts. This is a discussion which we have been having for a few years without any transparency and it need to be taken more seriously. When push comes to shove relying on the largest trusts to become even larger is not the way to go about ensuring others grow to the recommended size; indeed, it is counterproductive as there are only so many schools in England.   

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.