Essential update on Academy Governance

16 October 2020

We have produced this update to highlight the recent DfE publications on Academy Governance - links to the relevant documents are provided at the end for ease of reference.
Please ensure that these updates are brought to the attention of your school's governors/trustees/directors. If you are inducting new individuals onto your trust board, it may be helpful to refer to this guidance in combination with your academy's governing document(s). 
New DfE guidance
"Academy Trust Governance - Structures and Role Descriptors": provides high-level information about the roles and duties of each individual involved in Academy Trust governance.  The guidance is designed for:
• Academy Trustees
• Chairs of Academy trust boards and committees
• Local Governing Bodies
• Members of academy trusts
• Clerks/Governance Professionals
• Executive and School/Academy Leaders
• School Staff
• Local Authorities
Our summary
The guidance sets out the duties and obligations of various roles involved in academy governance. 
Amongst other obligations, it highlights the following roles for members and trustees:
  • Members should assure themselves that the trust is effective, and use their powers to intervene if governance is failing.  They also have oversight over the trustees, and may exercise their powers to further the charitable objects of the academy.  They should not be involved in the day to day running of the school or assume any other powers of the trustees.
  • Trustees must manage their personal relationships with related parties to avoid conflicts of interest, adhere to their statutory duties, engage with the communities and stakeholders they serve, and hold executive leaders to account for the performance of the trust. It recommends that they should be aware of 'The Seven Principles of Public Life' (which set out the ethical standards expected of those working in the public sector).
The duties and responsibilities of other roles are also addressed, including the Chair and Vice-Chair to the board of trustees, the Clerk to the board, the CEO and Principal and Local Governing Bodies, as well as the DfE's and ESFA's own roles.
Governance Handbook 2020
The DfE has also updated the Governance Handbook which expands on the role and functions of the governing board, the legal duties of the board, and provides information on the support available to them. 
The areas which have been updated relate to strategic leadership of academies, accountability, the individuals involved in governance, the structures of governance, compliance with relevant law and the evaluation of school performance.
The handbook should be read in conjunction with the guidance 'Competency framework for governance’, which sets out the knowledge, skills and behaviours that governing boards need to operate effectively. 
School and Trust Governance Investigative Report
These updates have been published against a backdrop of the DfE's Investigative Report, which addresses various issues faced by academies and how these may be resolved. The report contains investigative research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research. 
The principle issues addressed by the report are as follows:
  1. Workload for governors

    The report finds that governors and trustees spend a lot of time on their roles, but feel that they still cannot give their roles the attention they require.  The report suggests addressing this by reducing the number of committees involved in governance, or dedicating committees to particular specialist areas (e.g. finance) to avoid repetition of work between governors/trustees.
  2. Composition of the board

    A lack of separation between different levels of governance, for example trustees and executive leaders also being members, has led to concerns of a lack of impartiality.  The report recommends regular monitoring and evaluation of the board, and suggests utilising the help of professional support organisations for this.

    There is also a lack of diversity among governors, which the report suggests tackling by liaising with local community groups and using recruitment services.  
  3. Recruitment to the board

    Many governing bodies have vacancies which they find difficult to fill. Most rely on word of mouth and personal networks to recruit new governors and trustees, which the report warns may lead to an 'insular' approach to governance.  The report suggests using connection services, such as 'Academy Ambassadors' to recruit new governors and trustees.  

    To avoid recruitment difficulties for Chairs of the Board, the report suggests increased succession planning, for example training of vice-chairs, to ensure that someone is ready to fill the Chair position when the current incumbent retires.
  4. Training

    The report states that executive leaders at some academy trusts are concerned that the governing body's knowledge of school improvement, data analysis and education policy may require improvement.  The report suggests training in these areas, as well as in basic finance. 
Useful links

If you have any governance-related queries please do not hesitate to contact Vicky Wilson or Stephen Oxley for an initial discussion.

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