The debate about leadership goes beyond the senior team in a school. As is the case in any organisation, leadership starts at the top. In today’s schools this means Members, Trustees and Governors. So what does this mean in the world of Education?
In January this year the Department for Education (DfE) introduced the Governance Competence Framework. This has been the first official publication setting out some form of guidance on skills and competence for those providing governance and leadership in a school or Academy Trust. For some time, there has been a move away from a stakeholder leadership model, with the focus on recruiting individuals with the right skill-set. This can be difficult, not everyone has the time, and in some areas volunteers can be very limited in supply. Help is on hand through the Academy Ambassadors, and more recently through the establishment of the Inspiring Governance network. Both organisations are free to access, so if you are faced with difficulties in recruiting Trustees or Governors they are worth a visit.
The Board needs a group of people with a broad set of experience and capability. Too often, Boards can be established from individuals with common experiences and background. Does this lead to robust decision making? I would argue that diversity at Board level can lead to more robust discussion, and ultimately more robust decisions.
Despite many of the messages from Lord Nash, the NGA, and the Department, there are many Trusts who do not pay sufficient attention to their governance arrangements. An increasing stream of Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) investigations and published reports indicates practice is not where it should be.
What can we learn from this....
- The role of the Member is changing. The DfE now require a minimum of five Members on the Board. Members provide the highest tier of governance in an academy structure. They have a responsibility to maintain oversight of the governance arrangements and should ensure that these arrangements remain suitable for the organisation. This is especially important if the Trust goes through a period of rapid expansion. Members should be using their considerable experience and wisdom to seek clarification from Trustees that matters have been reviewed and considered. Whilst Members will generally have less contact with the Trust they should not be kept at an ‘arms length’.
- The Nolan principles. These must be the foundation of governance in any public organisation. Set out in 1995 by Lord Nolan they provide a basis on expected behaviour. For any prospective Member, Trustee or Governor this should be the starting point – reflect upon the meaning of the principles and ask yourself can you live by these in your capacity? If you can’t then really you should not be considering the role that you are about to embark upon.
- Declaring Interests. Interests must be declared and published on the website of the school. It is the Trustees and Governors responsibility to make the Chair of the Board aware of any connection should it arise. It seems obvious but many fail to embrace this responsibility. The ESFA has revealed that a number of Trustees became embroiled in financial transactions often relating to organisations they had a link with. The whole academy structure relies upon the public having faith in the system; this will evaporate rapidly if the public become convinced that Trustees are benefiting from the awarding of financial contracts quite aside from the issues associated with obtaining best value.
- Delegation of powers. Whether you are delegating to committees or Local Academy Boards you must ensure that your delegation is documented and clear. In 2016 Ofsted inspected a number of Trusts and too often indentified that there was confusion over delegated powers.
- Keep up to date. The ESFA reports highlight in many cases a basic failing of Trustees not keeping up to date with practice and guidance. The latest version of the Academies Financial Handbook has just been published – a must read for every Trustee.
- Accessing training. We all know the importance that professional development plays in moving an organisation forward. This applies to the Board – whilst they hopefully bring a wealth of experience and competence to the table from other professions, their learning should be ongoing. Trustees are not exempt from developing and keeping their knowledge up to date – time availability is not an argument to defend this – professional development goes with the role.
Reflecting on your governance arrangements and taking time to build a robust structure will serve your school and Trust well.
Further help can be found via:
ESFA investigations can be located on the ESFA publications website :
By David Allen - 15 August 2017