Skip to content
All posts

Podcast | Season 1 | Episode 3: Moving MATs Forward: The Power of Governance

Is the role of trust members in MATs currently concentrating power in the hands of a small amount of individuals? Is school improvement best served by geographically dispersed MATs? What are the implications of the changing role of school leaders in MATs and how might these work best? Sam Henson (Director of Policy, NGA) and Tom Fellows (Research Manager, NGA) respond to these and more questions during their insightful presentation. This session was recorded live on 13 November 2019, in the MAT Summit of the Schools & Academies Show at the NEC in Birmingham.

Listen On
Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify



Tom Fellows

My name's Tom Fellows. I'm the NGA research manager. I'm delighted to be hosting this session with Sam Henson, who is the NGA Director of Policy and Information. So I assume a few of you around the room have heard of the National Governance Association. We are an independent charity that represents a third of school governors and trustees across the country. As this session is relevant for MATs, I just thought I'd give you a quick oversight of the NGA MAT offer. So as you can see on the PowerPoint there, we have extensive guidance for Multi Academy Trusts, includes guidance on the roles and responsibilities of members. We have model schemes of delegation, and we have guidance on executive pay and a whole host of other resources on our website. We also deliver the leading governance programs on behalf of the Department for Education. There is over two and a half thousand pounds of government funded development for boards, chairs and clark's available for MATs. So, if you haven't accessed that already and want to please, please do get that while the money is still available. We also have online training our E learning through our learning link site. And here we host over 50 modules, including an in depth and interactive module on effective MAT governance. We also do things like bespoke consultancy and training around key themes including external views of MAT governance and we are also part of The Inspiring Governance Alliance with education and employers, and that is a matchmaking tool for schools and prospective governance volunteers. So if you have any questions, please do come along and visit our stand. We're located at D20, which is right in the corner of the room here. And any of the staff that will offer you any more information. And just quickly before I get onto the, the topic that we're going to discuss today, the third edition of Welcome to a Multi Academy Trust is available. A lot of what I'm going to discuss today is found its way into that document and the evidence that we draw upon, and it's usually £8 per copy, because we know people often only have a fiver in their pocket. We're selling it for a fiver today. So please do come down to the stand if you're interested. And you can get your coffee there. So, you've all come here today to hear about our moving MATs forward the power of governance report, and either you've got one in your hand or on one of the chairs near you is an executive summary of that report. And what it is really is we're looking to broaden and deepen governance knowledge across the sector. The report identifies 11 key themes that we have. We've identified through an extensive body of evidence, which includes five detailed case studies, over 30 external reviews of governance, decades of working in the sector, and an advice line, which answers questions from across Academy Trusts. And what we wanted to do is really move the debate forward identifying these key themes, these key issues that a lot of Multi Academy Trusts are facing and saying to ourselves, okay, so these are what we think are the challenges that are facing the sector. So let's as a group, think of some of the solutions. So that is what we are going to discuss today. There's 11 key themes and thinking about some solutions to those issues as well. I also identified four key debates and I'm not really going to touch on those today. But in the report, please do have a look. And there's four key debates are what we want this sector to discuss going forward. So you can see the URL to the main report there. And as I said, you've got the executive summary in front of you.

Tom Fellows

So going through the 11 themes that we've identified as the problems facing Multi Academy Trusts, but also what Multi Academy Trusts need to get right in order for governance to be effective. And the first thing we identified is getting the right people around the table. And as some of you around the room may know, this is also NGAs, first of eight elements of effective governance. So some of the challenges that we came across through our extensive body of evidence was that some MATs are relying too much on trustees with specialist knowledge in one area. Skills deficits commonly identified include things on education policy, risk, compliance, governance, special educational needs, and disabilities and charity law. Now, we've also come across examples where trustees with a wealth of skills and experiences have simply not turned up to meetings. And there's also issues with succession planning and recruitment processes. And we're also aware, however, that it isn't always the Trust's fault that they're not able to get the right people, geography can have a real big impact on getting individuals with the right skills into Multi Academy Trusts. And we also know that, beyond skills, trusts have outlined that they are struggling to get individuals in governance positions who represent the local community, as well as a diverse range of views. So thinking of some solutions to getting the right people around the table. Some of the elements to this include having a swift but effective governance recruitment process in place, thinking clearly about succession planning and thinking about that early before people are thinking about moving out of those key roles. And expectation, obviously, that trustees and those at a local level turn up to meetings and are willing to contribute. It's alright getting people with the right skills on board. But if they don't turn up the meetings, what is the point in having them on the trust board. And also thinking about upskilling through training, obviously, we all want to have the right skills on the board. But having committed people is extremely important. And actually, a lot of good work can be done by providing them with training, which can upskill them in their role. But there are, as I've talked about a little bit some barriers to getting the right people around the table. And one of them is obviously the time commitment. And recent research that we carried out at NGA was based on a survey of 93 MAT chairs, and this found that on average, MAT chairs are spending 50 days a year on governance. And this equates to if we were to extrapolate that to all chairs of MATs across the country, then volunteering between 7 and 9 million pounds worth of time to the sector. Now, chairs spend longer on governance depending on a number of factors. Primarily whether they were employed or retired. So those that were employed spent 291 hours on governance a year, compared to 419 hours per year for those that were retired. And also, if a chair sat on or attended meetings of the local tier, they spent on average 426 hours per year on governance compared to 322 hours on governance for those that didn't. So the time to check is a significant, significant obstacle to people doing the role. And obviously, understanding why people chair is complex. And I think it's worth just mentioning about remuneration here because we asked about remuneration in this project. And respondents were fairly split as to whether this was something that they would be interested in, but exploring the free text comments in the survey, many pointed towards an intrinsic motivation for chairing their MATs. So actually, what would happen if we started paying trustees is that those that do it currently may stop doing them all completely altogether, because they are intrinsically motivated. They want to do it because they want to give something back to the community. So we might actually lose a lot of good people from paying trustees and not gain anything from that.

Tom Fellows

The second big theme that we identified through our project was around organisational identity. Now, you've probably heard this a lot before. And you're probably well aware that a MAT is a single organisation, and being part of a MAT brings an intrinsic change to the identity of the schools, and which no longer have their own legal status. Yet, we still hear time and time again, that autonomy is held as one of the great benefits to individual schools of the academy system. This is simply not true. And actually, the message is that schools lose autonomy when they join a Multi Academy Trust. The following issues that are outlined on the board can compound the problems with schools within trust within trusts feeling disconnected, and it can lead some boards of trustees to neglect or overlook, creating a single vision for their organisation. So these include a hostility towards MATs from schools that are joining this can make it very difficult for schools that are joining the MAT to field part of one organisation. The existence of so called lead schools where trustees and executive leaders find it difficult to let go of previous roles they may have held within the schools and also a misunderstanding of what being in a MAT means with often a prevailing view that MATs take over schools and extinguish the identity of them when they arrive. Now, no MAT that NGA has talked to or looked into has looked to extinguish the individual character of schools. However, these trusts that have got organisational identity right, do look to ensure that all schools in a MAT feel part of one organisation. Now, this is really important, it's not seen, sometimes it's seen as a nice thing to do. But it's far more than that, as it can create some serious issues in terms of resource distribution, bias, accountability, and growth. So this is why as we vote at the bottom there, the sector needs to universally understand that a MAT is one organisation. Now the most effective way to do this is for MATs to be led by a clear vision, strong ethos and a set of non negotiables. When taking on new schools, they should be at the very heart of MAT growth, and it should be clearly communicated to all schools, so schools that are joining the MAT, understand what they are letting themselves in for, and the trust should only take on schools which match these vision and values and sign up to these non negotiables. However, often, this isn't possible. This wouldn't be an issue if they weren't mapped out. hadn't really thought about organisational identity before they've taken on these schools. And so, if a MAT is already established, and the organisational identity hasn't really been thought through, it's important for MAT leaders and those involved in governance to really challenge their own biases and embrace change. The trustees and executive leaders need to work with stakeholders from across the trust to understand what the trust stands for, and what type of non negotiables they want to organize their MAT around. And it's also important to get wider buy-in from others across the trust, including head teachers, and those a local level as well.

Tom Fellows

moving swiftly on, we do have 11 themes to get through this afternoon. Ethics and culture was the third theme in our report. And as you know, ethical issues have received extensive media coverage over the past few years, with several MATs having found themselves at the center of financial failings under, in a large part by poor governance and ethical decision making. Now, while all MATs might not be at the heart of a scandal, and in fact, they only are a small minority, there are some common ethical issues which keep cropping up across the sector as a whole. And these include things like executive pay conflicts of interests and related party transaction, and also things like a lack of transparency and not reporting the right information on a trust website. And we think that there are some compounding factors which have fostered this unethical decision making within Multi Academy Trusts. And one of these is this false view that state schools have somehow been privatized, and we think this is really underplayed, the charitable and public status of Multi Academy Trusts. NGA has also come across examples in a small minority of MATs. Our governance being certainly undermined, misunderstood, underplayed, or underappreciated by the executive team, for example, I came across a Multi Academy Trust that had executives shutting down challenge in meetings or overloading governance meetings to shift the power balance. To address some of these issues, MATs should remember and embrace the fact that they are charitable and public organisations and they should have the courage to say no to unethical things in the public interest. To help, MATs may want to consider embedding the known and principles of public life into their culture. That is the norms customs and behaviors, which govern their behavior, everyone involved in the trust. And just as a reminder, these are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. The fourth thing that we identified is about who does what in a Multi Academy Trust and often there's confusion about roles and responsibilities and this is from both non executives and the executive layers, often the question of who does what can be linked to poorly written schemes of delegation. And this can include confused references to mixed delegation in SoDs disjointed and contradictory delegation key duties missed off completely and no one actually doing it or knowing who's doing it, or SoDs that are simply too long, not well communicated, or simply not taken seriously at a trust or a local level. However, it's deeper than this. And there is a terminology problem in the sector as a whole. And this can sometimes give a misleading view of what the role of certain people within the trust is. So for instance, the governance handbook still describes members as eyes on and hands off, and this makes the role of member appear to be far less limited than it actually is. And furthermore, it is still prevalent use of the phrase local governing bodies to describe the local tier in Multi Academy Trusts. Again, this is confusing as the term governance applies by default to the Trust Board. Not those at a local level, as well as changing some of this terminology. To address these issues, schemes of delegation obviously need to be clear, well communicated, regularly updated and followed by all. It's also important for the Trust Board to be clear and upfront about roles and to have an induction program in place for new volunteers so that they understand the scope of their role. Going back to the points that I made around organisational identity, so also important for key individuals to learn to let go of any previous role that they may have held in the trust before it was created, and to embrace the change.

Tom Fellows

The fifth theme that we identified relates to community engagement and accountability to stakeholders. Now many MATs have reported to NGA that they struggle to engage with stakeholders including those at a local community level parents and pupils. This is extremely important and extremely clear oversight. As NGA I would argue that the fourth core function of governance should revolve around community and stakeholder engagement. So some common issues include, firstly, the power in Multi Academy Trusts being concentrated in the hands of too few people, particularly a small group of members who are often disconnected from the communities in which they serve. NGA also come across examples of MATs over relying and I've talked about this a little bit already over relying on head teachers and executives to speak for the school community. Now, getting this right can be really challenging as exactly what is meant by community and stakeholder. It's open for debate, particularly in larger MATs, but often, rather than looking to address the issue head on. It has simply been ignored in some Multi Academy Trusts. And while the emphasis from government has largely been on skills, this has often been at the expense of finding people with meaningful links to the communities they serve them toward. So some solutions here and NGA has come across many examples, particularly through our case study service, which you can find on our website, I do encourage you to have a look at that, where MATs are putting community at the heart of what they do. And we believe that there is a key role for the local team, as I'm going to discuss in the next slide, and ensuring that the voices of the community are heard. MATs also need a sense of place that is where the MAT fits within other public services around them, and how this is incorporated within the vision and values of the trust. So for my final slide before I hand over to Sam, the sixth thing that we identified is around the future of the local tier, and link to locality. There is currently a local tier in the governance structure of the majority of trusts. But the evolving picture of the local tier remains unclear. And many of the issues which we've already covered, but in other sections include a lack of clarity around or a duplication of roles and responsibilities for stations from those at a local level, who feel that they have less power than before. But on the flip side, also for stations, from those a trust level, who feel that the local tier causes them additional work. And there's also no evidence that we've come across to suggest that the hub model which a lot of Multi Academy Trusts have adopted, actually works. What are some solutions to this? Well, it's about going back to thinking about what the local team actually can do. And those at a local level can do any of these things on the board. They can monitor they can scrutinize, they can consult, represent and influence. But we've been saying for years at NGA that the role to be meaningful, it must those at a local level must as a minimum be able to influence. So that brings us to the question, what influence should they actually have? Well, often they are the ones that are connected to the school community and they have this connection the trust board simply cannot have. And as we've outlined on the board, they're using local governments effectively can lead to a meaningful and can lead to meaningful engagement of communities and parents in influencing the governance of schools. So in this sense, Trust boards should think carefully about the role applied to the local tier, how influence is maintained, and name it accordingly and appropriately. Over to Sam.

Sam Henson

Thanks, Tom. And I'm going to cover the remaining items on on our list. And the first one is communication. And I think this is a really, really important one and one that I think we should spend a fair bit of time considering really following on from what Tom was just saying about local governance. The local governance tier or any tier within a governance structure in a Multi Academy Trust will only work if the right communication channels are put in place in the first place. And we've seen this time and time again, from our direct correspondence with the trust that we're talking to that this is something that most trusts feel they haven't got right yet. And actually, I think it's, it's really, it's really good to see that more MATs are being upfront about this and are wanting to get get this right. But I think the more complex a MAT governance structure is, obviously, that presents greater challenges for the way that the communication channels work in that organization. So some of the common issues that we've seen, there include systems being unchecked and left the same for a long period of time. And often, they're the communications channels that were established as the trust started, and can then be left in place. Despite the fact that the Trust has changed over time has grown perhaps taken on many more schools and the process that is governance structure is the executive structure have changed as a result, but yet the trustees ultimately relying on the same methods of communication. And a clear example of that is where you see the trustees are taken from the individual schools within the trust. And that works perhaps over a period of time. But ultimately, as the trust grows, if indeed you do grow, if you are relying on those trustees being also on the local grounds and a local level, that becomes increasingly difficult as the trust gets bigger, because that workload of those trustees ultimately increases. And it also creates problems with the way that schools are in the trust see themselves and how, how they're appreciated by the trust as well as Tom was talking about earlier. So I think that's a really important thing to think about. Communication I think is something that trusts need to take a step back sometimes and think about what their approach has been, and how it needs to change as a result of that. These are some of the the key examples that we've seen from the trust that we have spoken to that have worked. And actually, we're really keen to hear about how trusts are taking their communication channels forwards. But ultimately, as Tom mentioned earlier, thinking about roles and responsibilities has to be the first one.

Sam Henson

Having a mechanism in place for the board to be able to share its decision making process and share what it's decisions are, is really important. We've heard from some trust that that simply produce a very, very simple briefing at the end of each meeting and of each trust meeting that they can then communicate the key decisions they've made on behalf of the whole trust. And that can then be shared across all of the schools within the organisation and that seems to work really well. And I think making sure the boards are are visible to the whole of the trust is really important, not just the board actually the executive as well. We've heard a few times from schools of interests where they communication channels essentially break down because they feel left out. They don't feel like they are kept in the loop with things. And that's partly because the Trust board is invisible to them. The executive is invisible to them. And I so I think there's a really important thing to consider there about how the trustees can perhaps look at visiting their schools or other other other channels that they can do that through and facilitating the exchange of central and local ideas really important, and that needs to flow both ways. So those that are local level need to, as Tom said earlier, know that they have that influence and that their ideas are taking seriously, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Trust board is going to act on everything that they say. But it does mean that there is at least a discussion a dialogue going going on between the different channels within the trust. Maximizing technology is something that we've seen a lot more of recently, the way that trusts communicate, and some use various online platforms, which which works really well. And the perhaps one thing that isn't on this list, which I think we do need to include is the role of the governance professional, and whether that's a clark or whether it's a head of governance, in the trust, actually, their role is is crucial to making governance effective across the organisation as a whole. And they can really be that sharing point of information, taking information from the local level to the trust and and back the other way as well. I think as well spending time to celebrate who you are as a trust together, we know that a lot of trusts have told us that they've started. So hold annual gatherings where they bring all the schools together, they bring governance together a local level, and with the trustees, and that seems to be a really powerful way of doing things of helping the trust overall to celebrate who it is, its identity and to remind people of that, and that can really help maintain that, that culture of trust and transparency across the trust. The eighth item that we explored was around due diligence and risk. I haven't got time to go into this into too much depth now. But one thing I do want to say about your diligence and risk, particularly if you are looking at taking on other schools, and thinking about governance and ethos as part of your due diligence process is really important. In the past due diligence has often focused on legal and financial aspects and scalability. But hasn't necessarily always thought about the way that you want to do governance. And so when schools then ultimately come to join the trust and find out that actually the way that you are governing is different than what they anticipated, then that can cause a few issues down the line as well. Also, I think being very clear around risk, who is responsible for that and making it clear at a local level, if the, if the Trust has mechanisms in place to deal with that? Growth, location and sustainability, and it's something that has been very much at the forefront of the agenda for Multi Academy Trusts. Over the last few years, there's there's perhaps been this assumption that you will grow that you have to grow in order to be sustainable, but we know, having spoken to lots of trust that that's not necessarily the case. Some trusts are very successful, and I've stayed a very small size, a localised focus there. But that does mean doing things differently. So we are really trying to get the discussion away from how big you are, but actually thinking more about what it is that that meets the needs of your trust. And I think actually, if you are going to grow thinking about how that growth impact it has how that that growth has implications on your existing students, you know, is that growth going to actually benefit the pupils' in your trust? If it isn't, why you're doing it, and are asking some quite open questions around that. I think it's worth saying on growth that of course, some trusts do and have faced pressure to grow from their overseas pressure to grow from from other schools around them. And we know that sometimes it's quite hard to say no, but sometimes it's necessary to say no, I'm thinking about that, in the grand scheme of your vision. And to those schools who are wanting to join you those who you've been asked to consider bringing into your group do they do they work with each force of your trust that they work with the vision of your trust. And how compatible are you. And I think also that applies to the merger of trusts as well. You know, we're not just talking about anymore trust started from scratch. But increasingly, we're likely to see more trusts that are merging together. So thinking about how your ethos and your vision fits with that of another trust if you are looking at merging with another trust. And our second to last point is around oversight. And this is a really interesting part of the research actually. And really, we focused on the way that the lines of accountability and MATs need to be better reflected by those that are responsible for my oversight. So that includes the Department for Education, that includes Ofsted. Obviously, we're all aware that there's a new Ofsted framework, and we've been in quite an open dialogue with Ofsted around this. One of the things that we're still not convinced is whether or not Ofsted are always getting t right around who is the accountable body and that's the Trust board, not those at a local level. And that is a really important point. And, we also think that the DfE must maintain a greater focus on that governance in order to get its focus on oversight, right. And that means the government must address the slowing pace of the focus on external accountability, as well. And so that is something that we'll press on to in the New Year once we've got the election over and done with. And then finally, I just wanted to finish on this point around collaboration. It's my favorite slide because I actually get to put up a picture of the Avengers, which is one of my favorite things ever. But I'm actually I think, for us, this is a good example of what collaboration is what it should look like, of people with different skills of different abilities coming together to for the benefit of something bigger than themselves. And actually, sometimes we found this focus on the school lead system has led to there not being enough focus on schools working together beyond the remit of their own group. And actually, there is a very real question mark here around how can how can organizations work together and not be seen to compete with each other. And this is something that we've, I think we need to have a debate about that going forwards across the sector and have issued a few recommendations to the department on that basis as well. And I think just to finish, we are concerned about the fact that there are some schools which are being left behind. And we're also concerned about the fact that some people still think that they have to convert they have to academise, and actually, it's not necessarily right for everyone. So we need to be thinking about that as we go forwards. And that's all within the remit of that report that Tom mentioned. So do have a look on our website, as well. And we just want to say big thank you to the people who have contributed to our MAT case study series. They've been very open and honest, they're pioneers of the sector really have been clear about the challenges and the barriers that they've faced and haven't shied away from those. So if you haven't read them do have a look at them. And there's some quite, open discussions around what has gone wrong and how they've rectified that. And one of the things that we really want to encourage is a more open dialogue across the sector. And that means trust coming together and being very real and honest about those challenges. And so if you're not part of a network at the moment and do get involved with one, NGA one, a community MAT network, if you've not taken part in that then do do come along to that you can you can discuss the issues that you face with fellow trustees, governance professionals, really important, I think, for the sector moving forwards. I'm so sorry that we've had to rush through them. If you do have a look at the research report, you'll find a lot more in there. Thank you.


Don't forget to register for your free place at our upcoming show on