The governance of multi-academy trusts: Who watches the watchmen?

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The governance of multi-academy trusts: Who watches the watchmen?

‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, your grace?’
‘I know that one,’ said Vimes. ‘Who watches the watchmen? Me, Mr Pessimal.’
‘Ah, but who watches you, your grace?’ said the inspector, with a brief smile.
‘I do that too. All the time,’ said Vimes.

As was so often the case, the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett put his finger on it. All organisations, from your local corner shop to the BBC to the Ankh Morpork City Watch, need not only someone to watch over them, but to operate within a robust and transparent accountability framework. Multi-academy trusts are no different. Governance issues are a common thread running through the various stories of MATs which have got into hot water over the last few years.

So what do we know about governance in MATs? Who is watching over these increasingly important organisations – and how can they be helped to do so as effectively as possible?

The two government documents which deal with MAT governance, the Governance Handbook and the Academies Financial Handbook, lay out some clear requirements, but leave much detail to be determined at the level of the individual trust. All trusts must be governed by a group of trustees, overseen by a group of members. All trusts must have a ‘senior executive leader’, who is also the financial accounting officer. But the Department for Education’s model articles of association give trusts almost complete flexibility to design the constitution of their board of trustees as they see fit in order to ensure it has the necessary skills and capacity to carry out its functions effectively.

Many new MATs draw on the governing bodies of their founding schools to populate their member and trustee boards. This is a pragmatic approach, which can help reassure schools that their current ethos and values will be maintained, and can provide helpful continuity as the schools move from one model to another.

As trusts grow, though, there is usually a need to rethink this approach. A model based around every school having a representative on the board may work when the MAT only consists of two or three schools, but soon becomes unwieldy once it grows bigger. It’s at this point that most trusts start to consider a longer term governance structure, which will enable them to oversee the whole trust at a macro level, while also keeping an eye on each school at a micro level.

There is no single structure that is right for every trust. There is, though, a growing body of knowledge about the principles that are likely to lead to effective MAT governance. Three of the most important questions to ask when thinking about the governance of MATs are:

1. Do you have the right people around the table?

In January 2017, the DfE published a new competency framework for governance, which sets out the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for effective school governance. Although this isn’t designed specifically for MATs (it’s equally relevant to maintained schools and single academy trusts), it’s a useful starting point when considering who you need on your board of trustees. The National Governance Association has used this framework as a starting point for a MAT-specific version of its much-used skills audit.

Growing MATs may wish to consider in particular whether they have expertise among their trustees in national and local education policy, strategic planning, leadership or governance of a complex organisation, change management, business development, stakeholder management, risk management, data analysis, financial management, HR policy and processes, and property and estate management.

2. What’s the relationship between your trust board and any local governing bodies?

Most MATs retain some form of school-level governance, or quasi-governance. In some cases, school-level bodies are purely advisory, with no delegated responsibility. In most cases, however, the trust board delegates some governance functions to school-level governing bodies. In larger MATs, particularly those which span several regions, an additional layer of regional or ‘hub’ governance may also be introduced.

Getting the relationships between these different layers right is crucial to effective governance. This relationship should be set out in the MAT’s scheme of delegation, and everyone involved should be aware of what does (and what doesn’t) fall within their remit. As trusts grow, they may need to consider introducing new mechanisms to ensure information is shared appropriately between different bodies, such as shared risk registers or forums for chairs of LGBs to meet with trustees.

3. How future-proof is your governance structure?

Reconstituting a MAT’s approach to governance is a time-consuming affair, usually requiring changes to the trust’s articles of association. It therefore makes sense, as much as possible, to anticipate possible future developments and plan ahead for them.

If the trustees anticipate that that MAT will grow rapidly over the next couple of years, for example, or that it will expand across regional boundaries, it might make sense to plan for the future introduction of regional governance ‘hubs’. If a MAT currently doesn’t include any schools of a religious character, but may wish to do so in the future, it makes sense to explore with local diocesan representatives what requirements they would place on the trust in order to approve this (a memorandum of understanding between the DfE and the Church of England Education Office, for example, sets out a shared understanding that, in the vast majority of cases, CofE schools will only be able to join a MAT with governance arrangements that reflect ‘no dilution of the level of church governance and involvement as it was immediately prior to conversion’).

Multi-academy trusts are still a relatively new part of England’s educational landscape, and we are, as a sector, still learning about the best way to govern them. As MATs take on responsibility for more and more of our schools, however, we have a collective duty to ensure that those watching over them are encouraged and supported to do so as effectively as they possibly can.

Who watches the watchmen? We all do.

Julie McCulloch
Primary and Governance Specialist
Association of School and College Leaders

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is a professional body and trade union, representing over 18,000 school and system leaders across the UK. Our members include CEOs and executive heads of multi-academy trusts, as well as heads, deputies, assistant heads and business managers in primary schools, secondary schools and FE colleges. Find out more about ASCL.

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