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Academy Trust Governance During Covid - Where Next?

14 January 2021

We explore what we have learnt about Academy Trust Governance during Covid-19.

Wrigleys recently took part in an online Roundtable discussion organised by Forum Strategy for academy trust chairs of trustees, looking at what we have all learnt about governance during Covid.

A summary of the Roundtable Report is now available on the Forum Strategy website, covering the following issues:

  • How has the work of boards changed in recent months?
  • What has changed regarding governance delivery? and
  • Looking ahead, what are boards identifying as their key strategic priorities?

During the past year, colleagues from Wrigleys’ Education team have posted articles to our website and to various forums intended to flag existing academy trust responsibilities and how those apply as part of the changing circumstances of any trust’s Covid response, including:

We have also posted articles to highlight relevant changes in legislation, including:

However, in terms of where next for academy trust governance, a key message is that from a legal perspective, so far as possible, it is business as usual. 

It is DfE mantra and a basic principle of good governance that trustees should be ‘eyes on, hands off’.  A natural human reaction to the continuing Covid crisis has been to help as and where we can.  For some trustees (and local governors) that has meant physically turning up at schools.  Now more than ever the governance separation between trustees and senior leadership teams (SLTs) is critical.  It is absolutely right that SLTs and all school-based colleagues feel supported; staff and pupil welfare has been at the top of many trust’s board agenda. But staff must be allowed to get on with their jobs. 

That does not mean that trustees cannot attend school, but when they do it must be for a necessary reason which adds value to their role.

Trustee meetings is one example of where governance has adapted quickly and positively.  There is significant flexibility in an academy trust’s governing documents (its articles of association) which allows for remote meetings for both trustees and members.  Many other charities are struggling with this issue.

Whilst remote meetings have helped, they are not in themself a complete answer.  The type of device, internet connection and a lack of familiarity with relevant technology present a challenge.  As do the now familiar ‘Can you hear me?’, ‘Can you see me?’ interruptions and sudden silences as we work out that a speaker has finished.

And yet, a remote meeting is felt to open up possible wider trustee recruitment, bringing in those who live further away or those who may otherwise have had difficulty with the number, timing, or length of meetings. Co-ordinating a more disparate group of trustees and building a proper effective and efficient governance team is putting significant pressure on chairs of trusts.

We have previously looked at related issues in Agile governance in schools and academy trusts, a copy of which is still available on our website.

By now all trusts will have refreshed their risk assessments to deal with the practical issues around Covid response, social distancing, and remote learning. A very quick pause for thought will have highlighted just how unfit for purpose many risk assessments at that time were.  Trustees are responsible for forward thinking strategic planning, so this is something of a reminder that no matter how well prepared we think we are, we can do better.

Trusts have not stood still or wallowed during the past year.  They have learnt and are now much better prepared, including the delivery of remote learning.  Clarification of the new legal obligation and managing parent expectations has significantly helped with this.  There remains an urgent need for the funding to be put in place to ensure that quality remote education can be both delivered and accessed, but also for funding of the Covid response cost being borne by schools, and in general for funding of the nation’s education.

There are further lessons to be learnt here, in that some trusts have been more successful than others in mobilising local community support, including access to funds and re-cycled equipment.  It would be helpful to understand how much this is a reflection on those trusts that have been able and willing to invest in those relationship and are now reaping some reward.

In determining ‘where next’ for governance at your trust, it is helpful for you to reflect on the challenges you have faced over the last year.  Not so much the issues themselves but how you have managed them.  What has worked, or not worked, for you?  Where are the pinch points in terms of your effective governance?  Remote working will continue for some time yet, for many it will become an integral part of the governance meetings in a post-Covid world.

Wrigleys can support you with an independent external review of both effective governance and compliance. Our website has further details. Alternatively, do call for a no-obligation chat.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Graham Shaw  on 0113 244 6100.

You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Education on Twitter here.

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors

Graham Shaw View Biography

Graham Shaw

Consultant
Leeds

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