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No mention of local governance in DfE's “trust quality” descriptions for MATs


UPDATE: The trust quality descriptions were finalised in July 2023 and have been published as an Annex to the Department's guidance on Commissioning high-quality trusts.

The Department for Education has published a draft set of “trust quality” descriptions for multi academy trusts (MATs). The descriptions follow the release of the Academies Regulatory and Commissioning Review report in March and builds on the five pillars of trust quality originally set out in last year’s white paperOpportunity for All.

A year ago, the white paper stated that strong trusts must have strategic governance, which was defined as “operating an effective and robust governance structure that involves schools and exemplifies ethical standards. Utilises the expertise and skills on its boards to oversee the strategic direction of the trusts effectively and hold leaders to account. Has a strong local identity, engaging effectively with parents and the wider community”. The white paper also included a specific commitment that “all trusts should have local governance arrangements”, which would be further discussed with the sector. 

However, the trust quality descriptions contain no mention of local governance.

In response to the publication, NGA chief executive Emma Knights said:  

“A year ago NGA and the governance community more widely was delighted when the DfE announced the focus on strategic governance in MATs and the expectation of a local tier of governance. Neglecting to include local governance in the description suggests the Department is out of kilter with the sector. As their Regulatory and Commissioning review report rightly states, the “overwhelming majority of MATs now have local tiers”. And, as NGA research shows, trusts are committed to the role of local governors in strengthening the governance of the trust as a whole.

While there is reference to trust board decision-making being informed by meaningful engagement, listening to parents, schools and communities in itself is not one and the same thing as local governance. The DfE has always agreed with NGA on this, stating in their own Governance Handbook that engagement should “not be confused” with “representation on a board and neither should it be seen as a one-off exercise for organisation”. Ensuring successful engagement is only one function of the local tier.

The DfE claim that “together, the descriptions ….. represent a clear and ambitious vision for the academies sector.” We remain to be convinced as boards and executives should already understand these basics. We look forward to engaging with the development of the commissioning guidance. There is a lack of clarity as to how the commissioners – DfE’s Regional Directors – will decide whether trusts are meeting the vision set by the descriptions, given the absence of any mechanism for measuring success.

In terms of the governance judgment, there is currently a quality assured DfE programme dedicated to making an assessment of trust governance: external reviews of governance provided by National Leaders of Governance. However the Department’s recent decision not to continue the NLG programme removes the ready-made way for commissioners to understand governance success.”

Sam Henson, NGA director of policy and information, and author of the Future is Local added:

“NGA, of course, understands the DfE does not want to dictate a single approach to how MAT governance is carried out; indeed, any attempt to straightjacket how the local tier operates for the sector would be wrong. Yet it is nothing short of a massive own goal to fail to understand and build on over a decade’s worth of learning from MATs across the country, recognising how local governance can and should feed into the strategic decision making of the trust board. To render invisible the commitment and time given by an estimated 80,000 local governors is unforgivable."