Key governance challenges for academy governance during COVID-19 – Part 2

The article is the second in a series of four blog posts on academy governance during COVID-19 that is being released fortnightly throughout May and June. Last week’s post considered the challenges and opportunities associated with adapting to new government guidance for the education sector following the closure of schools. This week’s blog looks at ways to review and adapt internal delegations to the current needs of academy trusts. A further two blogs will focus on other evolving challenges and practical actions that can be taken by academy trust governance professionals, trust boards and senior leaders to meet them.

Reviewing internal trust delegations and securing board approvals during COVID-19

Academy trusts have a multi-layered governance structure, with members as the ‘guardians’ of the trust’s governance and finance, the board of trustees holding legal liability for oversight of the trust, the executive team leading day-to-day activity, along with school headteachers and – in the multi-academy trust setting – a layer of local governance. All academy trusts are required to have a Scheme of Delegation that outlines how the freedoms given to trust boards to delegate their responsibilities have been applied within the trust. This includes ways in which roles and remits are managed at board level between the board chair, trustees, and committees.

During this period of COVID-19, many academy trusts across the country are reviewing their delegations and ways to approve key decisions and documents during this period for both practical and strategic reasons. In practical terms, boards are unable to meet in person and approvals by written resolution become more common. From a strategic perspective, boards are also adapting practices to enable more nimble and focused decision-making both at board level and throughout the trust. Academy trust governance professionals are therefore working with the chair and CEO/headteachers to trial, and put forward, new ways of delegating – whilst always ensuring that decisions made are robust, recorded and in line with the trust’s articles of association.

Challenges and opportunities when reviewing delegations

There are three main aspects of delegations which I have found it useful for trusts to consider during this time.

First, within the board itself, the role of the vice-chair becomes more prominent during times when boards are preparing for the eventuality in which the chair might be unavailable due to illness. Boards are ensuring that a vice-chair of the trust board is appointed – and also within local governing bodies/academy committees in the multi-academy trust context.

Second, and linked to this, a provision for chair’s actions - a concept used regularly in the maintained school sector – could also be added to an academy trust’s Scheme of Delegation. This will enable decisions to be made more quickly, within agreed limits, without requiring the time and attention of the full board. If it is preferred that a wider group of trustees engages with this process, a time-bound COVID-19 committee of the board could be established. Any decisions taken by the chair and/or committee are then formally reported at the next board meeting.

Finally, trust boards may also wish to review wider delegations within the trust, including the financial delegated authorities, to ensure that they are appropriate for this time period. For example, boards may wish to examine delegations for levels of budgetary spend (including exceptional expenditure relating to COVID-19), support for pupils on free school meals, decisions around curriculum delivery, or approaches to premises management.

Boards may wish to centralise some decisions that would usually be delegated to headteachers and/or in a multi-academy trust context, the local governance layer. Equally, boards may wish to delegate further some responsibilities to headteachers and local governance to enable decisions to be tailored to the local context of the school and its community.

Schools may have an existing emergency response and/or business continuity plan which already lays out these provisions for times when the board deems the trust/school is in an emergency situation.

Each academy trust will take a different approach, in line with the flexibility given to academy trusts to arrange their governance in a way that works for their context. This will reflect the values and ethos of the trust, the kinds of decisions that need to be taken and in a multi-academy trust context, how varied the schools in terms of their context and communities. My next blog post will focus on other ways in which boards and local governors can deliver effective and appropriate challenge and support trusts and schools during this time.

Anna Machin is a Director of Trust Governance Professionals and is a governance professional working for several academy trusts and charitable organisations. She is an Associate of The Chartered Governance Institute and co-delivers the Institute’s Essential Academy Governance training course.

The next Essential Academy Governance course will be delivered online on 19 June 2020. The course is ideal for academy trust secretaries, clerks, trustees, governors and school leaders who strive for good practice in the development of governance within their trust. This June course will also contain new sections on delivering academy governance during COVID-19.

Trust Governance Professionals runs Trust Governance Insight, a programme that exists to support academy trust governance professionals across England through termly training sessions, briefings, mentoring and peer networks. The Trust Governance Insight team have developed a range of templates and guidance notes for academy trusts adapting their governance practices during COVID-19. To find out more contact Anna at anna@tgpltd.co.uk.

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