Academy Governance Summit - January 2021

Adapting to the pandemic and increased scrutiny has placed huge stresses on academy boards. The last year has highlighted the need for strong and effective governance

Last week, the Institute held its annual Academy Governance Summit on the theme of ‘Delivering resilient governance in academy trusts’, something that has proved crucial to the education sector since the pandemic hit. Few people could have imagined this time last year the prominence education would come to have in our society. The central importance of schools being open, not just for children’s education, but to allow parents to work has been proven very clearly.

Adapting to the pandemic and increased scrutiny has placed huge stresses on academy boards. The last year has highlighted the need for strong and effective governance, something which was voiced clearly by our keynote speaker Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System. She acknowledged the vital role that governance professionals have played and the dramatic increase in workload they have had to manage, adapting to new technology, changing ways of working and ensuring that all board members have been able to continue to deliver on their strategic governance role.

It was particularly uplifting to hear the Minister state that the Department for Education (DfE) would be prioritising wider promotion of and support for the role of the governance professional this year. This was also confirmed by Ruth Jesson-Smith, Head of Governance Strategy and Capacity Unit, DfE in a session about ‘Building strong foundations’. She spoke about how governance professionals play a really important role in ensuring that the board is compliant with legal and regulatory frameworks and providing professional advice. The DfE is considering various ways in which to demonstrate the value of governance professionals, including looking at qualifications in conjunction with recognition, career progression and different levels of proficiency – something which our Competency Framework for Governance Professionals addresses in detail.

Baroness Berridge stressed the importance of learning from the experiences of the past year and the power of collaboration, something which I have long advocated myself. The summit itself was a work of collaboration with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) – whose chief executive Leora Cruddas spoke so eloquently about the phenomenal work that academy trusts and governance professionals have done to provide an education to students this past year – and Trust Governance Professionals.

Baroness Berridge commented on using the lessons learned to create a governance system that is fit for purpose and sustainable for the future. The Institute always strives to lead on governance improvements and one of the sessions at this year’s conference introduced our brand new guidance on ‘How to build an academy trust board assurance framework’. The Framework is one way for the board to be assured that what they are being told reflects what is actually happening. It has far greater potential than the current risk management process to support decision making and plan future activity.

The importance of Academy Governance is a key area for the Institute. Our Certificate in Academy Governance continues to grow in popularity since its launch in 2018, with students welcoming the detail it goes into as well as the course support for more complex areas.

Complexity is something that governance professionals thrive on. The impact of lockdowns and social distancing on attendance, learning and exams has been a central issue of the pandemic. The requirements of navigating these issues has highlighted the importance of good governance. I welcome the Minister’s focus on raising standards within the sector, including championing the need for a governance professional or clerk in each academy trust with sufficient skills to provide independent and expert advice.

In the coming months we will continue to work closely with the DfE’s Advisory Group on Governance and will be publishing further guidance to support academy governance professionals in their work. In the meantime, do not hesitate to get in touch if you have particular ideas about how we can support the sector and the governance professionals working within academy trusts further.

Author: Sara Drake is chief executive of ICSA: The Chartered Governance Institute.

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