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National Governance Association: The Big Issues as we Approach the Schools and Academies Show 2023

The approach to the Schools and Academies Show is always a good opportunity to reflect on the development of the schools system in England. The show’s twelve years of existence tracks the emergence and maturing of the multi-academy trust model, and we now find a schools system which looks very different to that of a decade ago.

At NGA, our support for those governing in MATs – both on the trust board and in the local tier – has also developed and improved over the years. We are now at a point where we can speak with confidence about what works and what doesn’t work in trust governance, with over a decade of experience behind us. Our latest collation of these learnings is our new Handbook, Governing a Multi Academy Trust, the definitive guide for MAT trustees.

Nonetheless, as the trust-system matures, new questions and challenges are always arising. This year is no different, and there are three big questions which will be occupying the thoughts of sector leaders and policy makers at this month’s show and beyond.

The first question is the role of Ofsted in MATs. There is now a widespread acceptance that the current inspection model, designed on the basis of inspecting individual schools, no longer reflects the reality of today’s education system. NGA’s annual governance surveys have consistently found a majority of MAT trustees and local governors supporting the principle of inspecting trusts, and Ofsted themselves have made clear their frustrations with the status quo.

The devil, as always, will be in the detail, and the sector’s lack of confidence in Ofsted will make it even harder to win over hearts and minds in support of specific proposals. There are huge question marks around Ofsted’s capacity to inspect MATs, and concerns about the limitations of a single graded judgement will be even more pronounced for an organisation of the scale of a multi-academy trust. Reform, though, is necessary, so these difficult issues will need to be resolved.

Uncertainty also surrounds the future shape of the schools system, especially for maintained schools, SATs and small MATs which do not fit into the 2030 vision set out in last year’s white paper. It is governors and trustees who take decisions about academisation, mergers and growth in schools and trusts, and they are consistently telling us how difficult it is to plan for the long-term when the status of the 2030 vision, and how the government would deliver it, remain so unclear.

In the absence of clarity, we are seeing boards taking decisions for the wrong reasons – merging or joining a MAT now, even if the fit is not quite right, in the fear of having less choice in the future. The question of school structure has always been difficult and controversial, especially suggestions of taking away the autonomy of individual schools to decide their fate. However, inaction is also a decision with consequences, and thought needs to be given to whether the fragmented “mixed economy” system of maintained schools and trusts coexisting is both desirable and sustainable.

In recent months, NGA has also been raising concerns about the position of local governance within MATs. Academy-level governance has never been a requirement, but NGA’s figures show that the vast majority of trusts have chosen to adopt it. This near universal acceptance was reflected in last year’s white paper, with commitments to ensure all trusts had local governance arrangements.

However, 2023 has seen a retreat from this position. Local governance was not even mentioned in the Department’s new trust quality descriptors, despite the time, resource and substantive role given to it by so many trusts. Meanwhile, our governance survey found local governors growing less confident about their impact, reversing long-term trends. While we appreciate the need to avoid being prescriptive, the sector has shown how much it values local governance by its actions. Now the Department needs to catch-up and make local governance the best it can be by helping to promote its value, and share best practice.

NGA colleagues will be speaking at the show, and listening to your views on Stand F22. Please come along and share your thoughts. We look forward to being part of these vital conversations.

Michael Barton, NGA Trust Governance Specialist New call-to-action