Last reviewed 13 January 2016

Martin Hodgson, a secondary school governor for 10 years, looks at the new Governors’ Handbook and its guidance about the governance of multi-academy trusts.

November saw the publication of the latest Governance Handbook by the Department for Education (DfE). Its full title, Governance Handbook for Trustees of Academies and Multi-academy Trusts and Governors of Maintained Schools, has been changed from the previous edition, Governors’ Handbook for Governors in Maintained Schools, Academies and Free Schools. The change is significant as it reflects the growing importance that the Conservative government attaches to schools working together in collaboration — in particular academies collaborating as multi-academy trusts.

Indeed, in the foreword to the new handbook, John Nash, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, states that the Government wants to see more schools seeking out opportunities to collaborate. He describes the current trend as a movement towards “an increasingly school-led system” with strong professionally skilled boards exercising their governing functions. However, he points out that such a system does not mean schools working in isolation, instead it means more and more schools that are “fully integrated with their local community” and connected with and learning from each other.

To underline this vision of schools increasingly collaborating together, the Under Secretary of State points out that 85% of all new academies in 2014–2015 are part of a multi-academy trust, or MAT.

Overall, he states that 57% of all open academies are functioning within MATs and benefitting from being part of “something bigger.”

What are multi-agency trusts, how are they governed and what are the benefits that the Government believes increasing collaboration brings?

MATs and federations

A school federation is defined in the Education Act 2002 as two or more maintained schools operating under a single governing body. The School Governance (Federations) (England) Regulations 2012 set out the structure and arrangements for leaving, joining and dissolving a federation.

There are various federated structures, but in most the original governing bodies of the member schools are dissolved and the governing body of the federation is formed. Although governance might be shared, partner schools retain their separate identity and are inspected separately.

A MAT, or multi-academy trust, in a similar way, is two or more academies linked together in a single legal entity. There is considerable flexibility about how a MAT can be structured and run but a single MAT board will be accountable for all of the academies within the trust. However, each member academy may have a local governing body, or LGB, to which the MAT trustees delegate some governance functions. An LGB may govern one or more than one academy within the group, and in a large MAT the board can appoint a committee to oversee a group of LGBs, for example, as a cluster.

The exact relationship between the MAT and its family of schools varies according to need. However, there will be a shared vision, aims and procedures to which all the schools subscribe. Both committees and LGBs within a MAT are made up of people that the MAT board appoints. However, they are not trustees of the MAT unless they also sit on the MAT board itself.

The Governors’ handbook states that the boards of academies and MATs, like all schools, should be “tightly focused” and no larger than they need to be to have all the necessary skills to carry out their functions effectively, with every member actively contributing relevant skills and experience. The handbook restates the Government’s preference for smaller boards, which it believes are likely to be more cohesive and dynamic, and able to act more decisively.

Benefits of MATs and federations

Government strategy is to support the development of MATs and Federations because it believes there are a number of significant benefits in schools and academies working together.

In section 4 of the latest version of the Governors’ Handbook, the DfE states that, in its view, governance structures that span more than one school create an opportunity for “higher quality governance” and that this will translate into better teaching.

The handbook states that the boards of maintained school federations and the boards of MATs will have a more strategic perspective and will benefit from being able to “compare and contrast” between schools in their group or chain. The DfE also believes that governing a group of schools through a single board also creates the opportunity for the skills of high-calibre people to be brought to bear in overseeing more schools.

Additional benefits are listed in the handbook as:

  • developing a richer and wider curriculum, partly through the ability to recruit and deploy more specialist staff, such as subject specialists or faculty heads who work across schools

  • better professional development and career progression opportunities for staff, and better retention of key staff as a result

  • bigger leadership challenges for middle and senior leaders, while also easing the overall leadership challenge through more supported leadership roles

  • financial gains and efficiencies, including those achieved through economies of scale and shared procurement

  • other economies of scale that make employing specialist roles such as finance directors and business managers with vital skills more feasible

  • better prospects for pupils through improved quality of teaching.

Governing a MAT

In the foreword to the new handbook, the Under Secretary of State for Schools claims that the consolidation of school-to-school collaboration through formalised cross-school governance arrangements not only realises benefits such as better teaching and a broader curriculum for pupils, but also leads to improvement in the quality of governance. He states that this is due to boards gaining a more strategic perspective.

However, he also points out that governing a group of schools is different to governing a single school and he advocates an independent review of a board’s effectiveness to ensure it is ready for growth. He also stresses the importance of attracting people into governance with skills appropriate to the “scale and nature” of their role, including people from a business background. He therefore calls on more schools to fully identify the skills that they need in their board and to make use of more specialist recruitment methods to fill governor vacancies.

Examples include:

  • academy ambassadors — a not-for-profit organisation set up to support academies across England by finding senior figures from the world of business and the professions to join the boards of multi-academy trusts

  • SGOSS Governors for Schools — a specialist recruitment body

  • the Education and Employers’ Taskforce –— a charity working to improve the links between schools and employers.

The handbook concludes by stating that the Government is keen to see everyone involved in governance having the confidence to tackle underperformance, to challenge mediocrity, and to set the “highest of expectations,” refusing to accept “second best” for any child. The Government clearly views the development of MATs as an important element in this school improvement agenda.