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What can trusts learn from the DfE Governance Investigative Report?

12 November 2020

We look at the key highlights for multi academy trusts from the DfE’s School and Trust Governance Investigative Report.

Background

The Department for Education (DfE) has published the School and Trust Governance Investigative Report. The DfE commissioned the National Foundation and for Educational Research (NEFR) to research school and trust governance and provide evidence to inform future policy and resources. So what are the key findings for multi academy trusts?

Constitution

The average size of boards and local governing bodies (LGBs) is 9.6 and 10.3 respectively, which is consistent with good practice. However, trustees and LGB members are largely female, white, over 40 and in employment, which exposes a gaping chasm in diversity. We should therefore expect the DfE to focus policy and resources in this area. Trusts can also follow the recommendations of the Charity Governance Code and implement a diversity strategy, monitor progress and publish an annual diversity report.

The report also highlights a notable degree of overlap with people holding multiple governance roles. This will be disappointing for the DfE given their focus on separation but is not unexpected given the perennial recruitment challenge.

What is disconcerting is the misunderstanding of roles and status which still persists, with board members calling themselves members and members behaving like trustees. Proper training and clerking is therefore a pressing need.

Recruitment

Barriers to recruitment continue to be the perceived workload of a trustee or LGB member and the lack of time to 

give to the role. An effective clerk can relieve the burden by simplifying the paperwork, while eliminating duplication in decision making between boards and LGBs can also help.

Boards also struggle to fill their skills and knowledge gaps in community engagement. This can be addressed by recruiting candidates from parents and LGBs, which is why strong relationships between boards and their LGBs are essential.

Meanwhile, a lack of succession planning into the role of chair is a concern, with people asked to take the role when they’re not ready or suited to the position. The report therefore recommends that vice chairs receive training and share the chair’s workload so that they’re able and willing to step up when the time comes. The same approach can be extended to trustees to ensure succession planning for the vice-chair.

Delegation

Most multi academy trusts (MATs) have committees (85%) and LGBs (82%) while only 18% have regional cluster groups. In most cases, delegated decisions are reported to the board for scrutiny or approval which is core to effective governance. However, some boards and LGBs perceive the allocation of responsibilities differently, for example regarding the appointment of the headteacher. This highlights the need not just for a clear scheme of delegation (SoD) but also for the SoD to be presented in different formats given the various ways we each prefer to receive information. LGBs should also receive training to ensure they understand the SoD and have the skills and confidence to discharge their functions. For example, the report highlights a particular need for training in financial management and planning and in-school data.

Clerking

Most boards are supported by clerks who are employed by the MAT (85%) with an average salary of £9,197.90. Where the clerk isn’t an employee, the average charges are £29.33 (hourly) and £188.44 (per meeting). However the clerk is engaged, trusts must benchmark the cost to ensure they are providing value for money (VFM) in keeping with the Academies Financial Handbook. This must include the support provided by the clerk. Here, 31% support 6 to 10 boards and 38% support 2 to 5 LGBs. Where VFM is not being provided, it may be appropriate to regrade or restructure, in the case of an employee, or re-tender the contracted service.

Crucially, 25% of clerks don’t see providing or signposting legal advice as part of their role. As this is a core component 

of the clerk’s role, as confirmed by the DfE’s Clerking Competency Framework, this a major concern and one we can fully expect the DfE to address. Trust’s must also review the job description or contract for their clerk and consider whether training may be appropriate to support the role.

Most clerks also report not being performance managed by the chair or at all. Trusts must address this priority to ensure the support and service they’re receiving is fit-for-purpose.

Effectiveness

Board effectiveness remains an issue with trustees believing they have the necessary skills and knowledge in school improvement and education policy while the executive disagrees. Chairs therefore need to co-ordinate between the board and the executive to avoid mixed perceptions and a lack of confidence in the board’s ability to support and challenge the executive. That said, the report confirms that boards do in practice lack skills and knowledge in these areas. This heightens the need for regular skills audits and relevant training to ensure boards are able to perform their role effectively. This extends to other identified skills and knowledge gaps in wellbeing and HR which are particularly critical during the pandemic.

Boards also display too much focus on operational matters. This is understandable given the added focus on compliance and pupil and staff wellbeing during the pandemic. However, boards must maintain their focus on the strategic and leave the executive to manage the operational. In this way, they will help relieve the burden on the executive and support them during this unprecedented time.

Boards do evaluate their effectiveness. However, they focus on self-evaluation against trust plans, key performance indicators and guidance, and by skills audits and away days. These are important and all have their place. However, boards must also engage external support as required and no less frequently than once every 3 years for an independent assessment of their effectiveness and how they can improve. If your board is in need of an independent governance review, do get in touch. The governance review service provided by Wrigleys Solicitors and Satis Education offers the advice and support needed.

Training

Finally, the report confirms that boards and LGBs tend to receive their training from the trust, the National Governance AssociationThe Key and/or their local authority. All these sources have their place. However, care should be taken to ensure that the training and support provided by the local authority understands the legal and policy context for trusts, not just as those relate to maintained schools.

Boards are less likely to receive training and support from a National Leader of Governance (NLG) or mentor or by observing other boards. These perspectives can be invaluable and needn’t cost the earth.

The report further identifies particular skills gaps in financial management and planning, school data, statutory policies, and staff management.  The DfE and trusts will need to give these their added focus.

Given the time pressures on trustees and LGB members and the cost sometimes involved in securing training, the report identifies the need to signpost guidance and make this as accessible and digestible as possible. It may help to summarise the key points, perhaps in a checklist. An effective, professional clerk can help with this and so ease the burden on the rest of the executive.

MAT’s already invest in and support CPD for their staff.  It is important to recognise the need to do so for their governors, trustees and members.

Summary

The School and Trust Governance Investigative Report identifies and reinforces key governance challenges for trusts. Many of these are interconnected and so require a co-ordinated response. We need the DfE to provide clear and effective policy and targeted resources to support trusts as they continue to address these challenges. Trusts will also address the governance challenges by drawing on their own hard-earned experience and expertise and by collaborating with each other, which they’ve done admirably during covid.

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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