The “Governance” of Multi-Academy Trusts

9 Apr

I        Preamble

A Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) is a group of semi-independent schools – formally called academies, which have clubbed together.  The trust is accountable to the Department for Education.   There are now about 5,000 academies in the country.  Altogether, 48% of these are in some kind of group arrangement.  Local authority maintained federated schools are not unlike MATs.

With government determine to convert every single school into an academy, it is, perhaps, apposite for us to give some thought and time to reviewing how a MAT should govern.

A MAT is a single legal structure that is responsible for several academies within it.  A board of trustees/directors governs the MAT.  However, more often than not, it delegates considerable powers to local academy committees/governing bodies.  An academy trust has articles of association, the legal governing document that sets out the composition and procedures for the academy trust.   However, this must not be confused with the scheme of delegation that every MAT should have to clarify the roles and responsibilities of

(i)         the trust body;

(ii)        the body that has oversight of an academy;

(iii)       the chief executive; and

(iv)       the headteacher of each academy.

With the local authorities in a kind of financial free-fall, schools have had to find other ways of operating in collaboration with one another.   They do it mainly through MATs or federations to

  • pool and deploy resources more efficiently;
  • share professional expertise and learn from one another;
  • offer career opportunities for talented and/or ambitious staff members;
  • improve the quality of education for the pupils; and,
  • ultimately improve pupil progress and achievement

II       The Shape of Governance

There are four types of governance within a MAT

(a)        In the first we have the Academy Trust operating in a manner not dissimilar to the governing body of federated schools.   The academies are directly accountable to the Directors/Charitable Trustees of the Academy Trust.

(b)        In the second structure, there is an umbrella trust within which individual academy governing bodies work.  The umbrella body is deployed to facilitate the sharing of resources and joint procurement. This is a looser arrangement which can result in the umbrella trust finding it difficult to intervene when a school performs poorly.

(c)        The third structure is a hybrid of (a) and (b) above.  An umbrella trust has underneath it individual schools operating separately with governing bodies and also a few schools – say primary or special ones – operating conjointly as mini-academy trusts.

(d)        The fourth type is generally found in small MATs – of no more than three academies – where there is one Academy Trust board and one governing body. The Trust determines how powers are shared and the governing body may or may not have discrete committees overseeing different areas of the lives of the academies – such as finance, curriculum and staffing.

Legally, there is no difference between sponsored and non-sponsored academy trusts.   All academies are charitable companies limited by guarantee. Originally, sponsored academies were previously underperforming schools.  Now, underperforming schools are shanghaied into joining MATs.

Whatever the structure, it is critical for every MAT to be cognisant of what makes effective governance. The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has set out the eight elements.

  • Having the right people around the table
  • Understanding roles and responsibilities
  • Good chairing
  • Professional clerking
  • Good relationships based on trust
  • Knowing the school/s/academy/ies – the data, staff, parents, children, community
  • Governors/trustees committed to asking challenging questions
  • Members who are confident enough to have courageous conversations in the interests of the pupils and students

III     Clarification on MATs’ Functions

A standalone academy – like a MAT – is a company defined as an exempt charity.   It will have directors, also called charitable trustees, and members of the trust.   The directors are also classified as governors.   In a MAT, the additional layer underneath is the governing body.  The board of directors decides what decision-making powers are passed to these local governing bodies through a scheme of delegation.

The members of the academy trust would have signed the memorandum of understanding at the behest of the government at the time of conversion.   Members of a MAT rarely meet – once annually, in all probability – to approve the auditors and the accounts, albeit, they have a crucial role in appointing persons to the MAT board.

The directors/charitable trustees appoint members of the governing body of the MAT. The trust board has responsibility for the following:

  1. ensuring the academy trust complies with the law and its governing documents which include having regard to guidance from the Charity Commission, the government’s funding agreement, articles of association and the Academies’ Financial Handbook;
  2. acting responsibly;
  3. exercising independent judgement;
  4. managing conflicts of interest;
  5. demonstrating reasonable care and skill using personal knowledge as well as taking professional advice where appropriate; and
  6. promoting the academy trust’s success.

All MATs have some local governance at individual academy level.  However, they differ hugely.  Some MATs have chosen to have local governing bodies operating very much like the established governing bodies.   Others have advisory boards whose role is to inform the central board of performance and issues at local academy level, leaving the main decisions to the central board of directors.   For the rest of this article, we shall refer to the local group as the “academy committee” which in a school would be called the governing body.

IV     Structures

(i)         Composition of the MAT Board

(1)        The representative structure comprises members of the local academy committees. This helps with communication and continuity but can be unwieldy, subjective and conflicted.

(2)        The traditional model is where trustees/board members are drawn from the stakeholder groups – including staff members, parents and members of the community.  This is the case where there are a small number of schools in the MAT.

(3)        Where the MAT board comprises appointed members, the appointees come from external bodies/organisations.  This is often the case where the MAT is sponsored.

Some MATs mix and match.

(ii)        Delegation

Deciding what to delegate and what to retain will not be in the articles of association drawn up with the Department for Education.   A MAT will have to create a delegation document which, in many respects, is not unlike a scheme of delegation of a governing body, spelling out the detail.  Delineating responsibility is a key aspect of a successful MAT.  However, the MAT board must understand that delegating discrete areas of responsibility is not the same as abrogating responsibility and it ultimately is accountable for anything that may go pear-shaped.  Consequently, the larger the number of academies in a MAT, the more difficult it becomes to keep a tab on the constituent parts.

Some MATs adopt a tiered approach, delegating decision-making where schools are doing well and giving only advisory powers to the academy committees where the schools require improvement.

Committees (known as governing bodies in schools that aren’t academies) have traditional membership – with staff and parents represented.  The DfE requires elected parents to be on committees and/or the boards of trustees but has now signalled in the White Paper that this will not be the case in the future.

While some MAT boards determine the compositions of the local committees, others have permitted individual committees to decide on their own compositions within a framework.   How members are recruited to the local committees will be determined by the responsibilities delegated to them.   For instance, committees responsible for finance and staffing will require members skilled and knowledgeable in financial and human resources issues.

A small MAT made up of two or three schools could decide not to have any delegation to an academy committee.  However, this may result in the MAT board biting off more than it can chew.  More often than not, a small MAT will create on committee – in a school known as the governing body – which then delegates powers to sub-committee for discrete areas such as the curriculum, staffing and finance.

(iii)       Communication

Because accountability cannot be delegated, the MAT board needs to know what decisions the committees are making on its behalf.

Having a knowledgeable, skilful and able clerk who works to the board and for the committees will help.  In addition, thought may be given to the following proposals.

  1. The chairs of the committees could write papers highlighting the decisions taken by their committees and present them to the board.
  2. Chairs may wish to report directly to the board or be members of the board.
  3. Chairs could meet conjointly and share information across their committees.

There could well be other ideas to aid good communication.

(iv)       Threats and Opportunities

Boards must cut their coats according to the cloth available.   It is crucial for them to secure good governance when there are internal and external forces urging them to expand.

(1)  Schools in a MAT having a huge geographical spread could present unique challenges.  For instance, do members of a board have great distances to travel to get to their meetings? This may put potential, talented and committed people off joining the board.   Perhaps local committee members could communicate with the board through email, Skype and/or Royal Mail – providing it is reliable.

(2)  Where there are too many academies in a MAT, the workload for board members may well be off-putting.  Dysfunction creeps in and results in one or more academies being given notices to improve or deemed to be inadequate.

(3)  Governors of the schools that join the MAT may wish to be represented on the board.   Where the MAT is large, this may not be possible.  What then?  Representation may lead to problems of size and confusion; non-representation to alienation.

(4)  A big MAT presents opportunities for sharing good (and bad) practice, from which all the academies can learn.   Experienced chairs may be able to share good practice with inexperienced ones – especially if they are struggling.

(v)        Changing as it grows

If and when a MAT grows, the original structure may no longer be fit for purpose.  It may wish to delegate more responsibilities and functions.

However, five to six schools is as large a group a single board should run. A larger number would require the board to have two intermediary boards or committees.

Where there may be more than 10 schools, the board may choose to have an academy committee for each institution and consider a division of the three key responsibilities which governing bodies have – i.e.

  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;
  • Holding the headteacher/principal to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils; and
  • Overseeing the financial performance of the schools/academies securing value for money – keeping responsibility for (i) and delegating (ii) and (iii) to the academy committees.

Rather than go into dotting i’s and crossing t’s of schemes of delegation, it may be useful for the reader to scour the internet and find out some useful models of delegation.  To guide us through the mire, the National College for Teaching and Leadership has produced a very useful guidance document which can be accessed here.


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