02 October 2017 by Kirsty Watt
A non-executive role with an academy trust is a professional challenge and a philanthropic opportunity.
Seasoned governance professionals are rarely surprised, but the pace of change in education merits a second glance. The last year alone has seen new GCSEs introduced, A to E grades replaced by a nine to one scale, a new governance competency framework, and funding changes.
The good news, for us as recruiters of non-executive directors (NEDs), is that challenge turns out to be the best recruiting sergeant for attracting high-calibre board members.
In 2016, we wrote in Governance and Compliance about why corporate governance skills are required in education, and particularly by multi-academy trusts (MATs). The need has not abated.
The number of academies – independent, self-governed, state-backed schools funded directly by government – has grown from around 200 in 2010 to 6,700 in 2017. Academy Ambassadors recruits for at least fifty trusts at any time, from Cornwall to Cumbria, and most of these trusts are undergoing change to their governance structure, size, approach or systems.
STEP Academy Trust in Croydon, South London, is just one example. Today the trust comprises 13 schools and governance has rapidly evolved with the growth of the trust.
For board members at trusts like STEP, the moral purpose holds true from its origins but the work of the board is different – making decisions on new schools, leading change and overseeing organisational and governance redesign.
One NED appointed through Academy Ambassadors joined the main board, then chaired a new school board and joined a new audit committee, her role evolving with the trust.
There may be no pay, but there is still much to be gained when you join the board of an academy trust. If you want a way to give back there is no better way to use your time.
Education remains the great driver of social mobility, bringing opportunity to young people and skills and confidence to entire communities.
Sadly, that opportunity is simply not present for young people in some schools. We are the fifth largest economy in the world but our system ranks in the twenties when judged by the educational performance of our 15-year-olds.
Improvement is underway, with some 1.8 million more children taught in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rated schools today compared to August 2010. But nearly 1 million children are still taught in schools which are classed as less than good.
“Education remains the great driver of social mobility, bringing opportunity to young people and skills and confidence to entire communities”
There are many great ways to get involved in education, such as volunteering your skills or reading with pupils, but good governance can bring about systemic and long-term change.
Gemma Rogers, a finance professional and MAT board member, is typical when she says of her NED role: ‘Helping students achieve their full potential through effective schooling is critical to ensure the development of talent in the UK, while also being hugely rewarding for those involved in the process.
‘Any way in which I can bring the skills I have learned through my professional experience to bear in this context is a huge honour and fantastic opportunity.’
Your governance knowledge and expertise will be tested and refined when applied to a new sector.
MAT boards are attractive to those who come from corporate board governance because academy trusts face the same problems as any business board: to define a compelling vision and strategy, to operate within financial constraints, and to create an effective governance structure.
Much of the work will be very familiar: NEDs lead strategy development and hold the executive to account for its delivery.
As a sector, education also offers sufficient variety to develop your governance skills. The requirement for data-driven governance is not new, but there are new sets of data to grasp: not just financial performance, but exam results, pupil admissions, staffing data and safeguarding.
There is an increasing body of evidence on what makes a ‘good’ education or MAT, as well as more data openly shared for the board to benchmark performance across a range of indicators.
Beyond the philanthropic desire to do good, the most frequently cited reason to volunteer that we hear is the ‘intellectual challenge’.
Many of the NEDs we introduce to a board say they were surprised and delighted by the opportunity to work alongside outstanding academy principals, heads and CEOs.
Any non-executive role is a commitment and the average for an academy-trust role is 10 hours per month. That time is valuable and you need to know it is well spent.
In MATs, the authority of the board is backed by the devolved funding, accountability and control inherent within the academies organisational structure. Choices rest with the board and there is significant scope to drive change.
The related NED role has a clear purpose because academies are focused organisations established to raise educational standards and performance. For the volunteer that means it is clear why you are on the board, what your purpose is and what is the expected outcome from your time.
“The related NED role has a clear purpose because academies are focused organisations established to raise educational standards and performance”
The Academy Ambassadors 2016–17 cohort will deliver over £4.5 million in value measured by time commitment alone, with much greater value delivered in terms of the impact on the performance and costs of academies.
Test and exam results will provide further evidence of the success of the board. When the Harris Federation took over Harris Girls’ Academy in East Dulwich, good results more than doubled. 75% of pupils now leave with five or more good GCSEs.
Governance in some MATs is capable of rivalling the professionalism of the corporate world, and there are regulatory frameworks that set clear standards to guide the work of the board.
However, the sector is maturing and, with a competency framework that is less than a year old, there is likely to be plenty of scope for you to improve the board you join.
That framework sets out the six competencies expected of all boards and provides both a framework for board evaluation and a checklist of areas that you may wish to develop as a governance professional: strategic leadership, accountability, people, structures, compliance and evaluation.
On joining a MAT board your specific governance skills will be extremely valuable, be it for the role
of members; the process and people skills required of board development; schemes of delegation; managing conflicts of interest; or board reporting.
Administrative functions that support the board rest elsewhere – not with you as a NED – and your role is to set the standards, guide the team and provide scrutiny and challenge.
With responsibility of course comes the question of liability. Under company law, the trustees and directors of an academy trust, as company directors, will have no personal liability for wrongdoing by the academy trust company if they act honestly, reasonably, in good faith and within the scope of their duties.
The nature of MATs as small and growing groups means that new roles will continue to emerge. Trusts grow and change and require a regular refresh of board membership.
Newly formed and small MATs outgrow their legacy membership and growing trusts must develop in order to ensure the board has an evidence-based strategy, drives financial efficiencies and holds its executives to account.
Even at a high-performance, stable MAT, the work of the board is highly varied.
The board may face decisions on mergers and acquisitions; will likely need to drive financial efficiencies; could require fresh thinking on marketing, parental engagement and communications; and always needs a constant eye on performance.
It is rewarding work for the intellectually-curious governance professional.
If you would like to volunteer as a non-executive director for a multi-academy trust or seek non-executives for your MAT board, Academy Ambassadors provides a free, bespoke matching service and can be contacted via email.