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The importance of trust members: are they or are they not?


Our legal partner Browne Jacobson has recorded a podcast: their education partner, Mark Blois, and me discussing the role of members of academy trusts.  You might think this is rather niche - the sort of geekiness we experts on trust governance chat about. But actually, at NGA we produced the second edition of our guidance on trust members at our annual conference on Multi academy trusts in November because we have had so many questions about their role.  Yet, as Mark says, there has been largely a policy vacuum on the topic with a complete lack of attention in the early days of academies on their purpose, and so NGA has stepped in to fill it.

We thought we had nailed it with our first edition of the guidance, written by Sam Henson, our Director of Policy and Information and published almost 18 months ago.  We described members of an academy trust as “the guardians of the governance of the trust. They have a limited and distinct role”.  However, that limited role then takes nine pages of guidance to explain: a number of myths have grown up which Mark and I discuss in the podcast.

I even get a chance to share my hypothesis that the confusion about the role was brought about because of the way in which it came into being.  The original architects of the academy trust model included Andrew Adonis; in his book Education, education, education, governance is barely mentioned even though that was one of the most, or arguably even the most, significant changes. Comparisons were made with company shareholders, and continue to be in the DfE’s Governance Handbook, although we have pointed out for years that this emphasis of the for-profit sector, rather than the charitable sector of which academies are part, is unhelpful.  Company shareholders have a personal interest, expecting to receive a return on their investment. The success of the company benefits the shareholders, whereas members of trusts are there to secure the mission of the charity.

So have a listen to the podcast and read the guidance to find out more about how they do that. Here in GovernanceHQ, we continue to debate just how far members should go to assure themselves that governance of the trust is effective. Do not attend a trust board meeting as a member to observe unless the members suspect that governance may be dysfunctional: in this instance the member would be looking at how the board makes its decisions, not reviewing its decisions themselves.

We all agree members should expect to have an external review of trust governance given to them at least every three years, and self-review or a peer review in between time. Conflict of interest alert: NGA provides external reviews, and at present the DfE fund us to work with boards to develop their governance: if you are a trust that hasn’t taken advantage of this free development, I suggest you consider it and report the outcomes to your members’ AGM.

If your question is not answered in the guidance, let us know at

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.