We use cookies to make this site as useful as possible. Read our cookie policy or ignore.

An additional dynamic

22 January 2016

An additional dynamic - read more

Even for seasoned governance professionals, academy trusts provide a range of governance challenges

The Academies Act has given many English schools the opportunity to change how they meet the needs of their pupils and raise achievement through greater freedom and independence. These new freedoms have inevitably brought new challenges and responsibilities too, including the good governance of individual schools and multi-academy trusts. ICSA has followed developments in academy governance with interest and a little concern.

Research commissioned by ICSA into academy governance earlier this year found that:

  • Academies are still in a transitional phase, struggling to transform their governance
  • Governance services used by academies are often ‘pick and mix’, based on pre-existing relationships and with variable results
  • The emphasis tends to be on compliance without there being a real driver for improved governance standards that add value to the school and its pupils
  • Larger trusts have more access to governance support.

In June 2015 there were 4,676 academies, with hundreds more in the pipeline. With further proposals to turn ‘coasting’ state schools into academies and any new schools being escorted down the academy or free school route, that number is likely to grow exponentially.

As academies are subject to a range of governance pressures: company law; charity law; education regulations and the provisions of the school’s funding agreement, it is unsurprising that a few of them have found themselves the centre of adverse publicity. Even for seasoned governance professionals, academy trusts provide a range of governance challenges.

To help academy schools navigate the governance arena, ICSA has developed a governance maturity matrix document. The matrix highlights factors that would indicate where an academy lies on a spectrum between having fledgling governance arrangements and leading good practice and being sought out as ‘best in class’.

Following a public consultation, the matrix has been updated to take into account the feedback received. Most importantly, the matrix provides summary indicators of an academy’s governance effectiveness, drawing on criteria detailed in the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook 2015 and other established principles of good governance. The table details the three core roles of the governing body (academy trust board) as stated in The Governors’ Handbook:

  • Setting the vision, ethos and strategic direction
  • Holding the head teacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils, and the performance management of staff
  • Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent.

Alongside these, the matrix includes the commonly agreed good governance principles of:

  • Understanding the role, responsibility and legal framework in which the governing body (academy trust board) operates
  • Accountability, including probity
  • Stakeholder engagement.

As such, the matrix looks at five indicators of governance maturity identifying activities and outcomes that help indicate where an academy’s governance arrangements lie on the spectrum at a particular moment in time. It is likely that progress may take a backward move in some situations as a consequence of the school’s evolution. The five indicators are:

  • Compliant – minimum legal and regulatory requirements are met
  • Developing – principles of good governance accepted and documented implementation activities available
  • Mature – effective and proportionate systems and processes are embedded which impact positively on the academy’s achievements
  • Advanced – governance systems are regularly reviewed and amended in light of the academy’s evolution via a comprehensive assurance framework which ensures continuous improvement through formal evaluation
  • Vanguard – the governing body (academy trust board) leads good practice in its governance and seeks to share its learning with others while remaining alert to new ways of working that are appropriate to the school.

For governance and compliance professionals, the matrix provides a good starting point to review the governance arrangements in place and to map work for introducing improvements. This will help to develop the effectiveness and robustness of existing policies and procedures. As with all good governance, the p’s need to be in place: purpose, processes and people.


Before there can be good governance there needs to be a clearly articulated and understood purpose for the organisation. Out of that, the framework for the people and the processes will form. That purpose should shape the communication strategy for different stakeholder groups – to attract funding, sponsors, students and parents – along with garnering wider community support for the aims of the academy. In short, a clear purpose will provide a rallying point so that everyone understands their role in fulfilling that organisational purpose.

Once that organisational purpose has been agreed, all decisions and activities of the governing body (academy trust board) should contribute to the achievement of that purpose. It is therefore imperative that key documents and assumptions supporting them are reviewed to ensure they are fit for purpose. Key to the governance success of an academy trust will be the governing body understanding what their roles and duties are and from where they derive.


Academy schools must comply with certain requirements within Department of Education and the Education Funding Agency regulations regarding the size and composition of governing bodies (academy trust boards). Those regulations can change periodically, requiring a governance professional to remain alert to those changes and their impact on the school’s governance arrangements. Furthermore, the governance professional should be looking to add to those legal requirements to ensure that the governing body is optimised for delivering the school’s purpose effectively and efficiently. Minimum legal requirements are just that, and if there is a need for particular skills or more independence to deal with conflicts of interest, then measures should be taken to amend the governing document accordingly.

Staggered terms of office are also helpful for retaining corporate memory while introducing new people with fresh perspectives and much needed skills. Recruitment and succession planning should be based upon agreed criteria, where appropriate, and linked to an ongoing programme of induction. Further training and review will be useful when resignations and retirements come along.

As in any organisation, the corporate calendar is key to the positive impact a governance and compliance professional can have on an academy school. Ensuring that the frequency of meetings and agendas align with the reporting requirements of the school and the academic year is essential in preparing the governing body for the work ahead. Planning and preparation will offer paid staff and volunteers suitable forewarning of the activity to be undertaken and any immovable deadlines.


There is a tendency for UK boards to be seen as male, pale and stale, with much written about the need to introduce more women into the boardroom. Although gender diversity is important, it can lead governance professionals and boards to think in very narrow parameters. Board diversity should incorporate a range of tangible and non-tangible factors ranging from gender, ethnicity, social background and religion to left/right brain thinking and personality types such as introvert/extrovert.

Ensuring recruitment and selection processes have clear and agreed criteria linked to the strategic aims of the organisation can focus the attention of panels on the needs of the board to help deliver the academy’s purpose. Once in place, work needs to be done to ensure that the board displays the behaviours and leadership qualities they have agreed for the school. Critical thinking, independence of thought and constructive challenge should be supported by codes of conduct and, possibly, meeting etiquettes to support the culture that the governing body is trying to promote.

Reviewing the performance of the governing body should be a regular activity, with the findings fed back to the board, individuals and, in the appropriate format, the wider stakeholders. As pupils are tested and monitored for progress so should the governing body, to ensure that it is working effectively.

Governance professionals, or others involved in academy governance, can use the academy maturity matrix to establish their current governance maturity and trace their governance progression against highlighted destinations in the next 12 to 18 months. As individual schools will be at different stages in their governance maturity, collectively and within each function, the document can be used in different ways:

  • Aa a basic self-assessment tool
  • As part of a governance review discussion by the governing body or academy board
  • As part of any peer (where part of a formal chain or working more informally with other schools), stakeholder (pupils, parents, sponsors etc.) or benchmarking reviews of the school’s governance arrangements.

The matrix should be seen as an additional dynamic to the practical support available to those involved in the governance of academy trusts, supplementing existing guidance.

You can find further resources for governing academy schools on the ICSA website.

Louise Thomson is Head of Policy (not-for-profit) at ICSA

Have your say

comments powered by Disqus