Those in charge of multi-academy trusts are not power-mad, says Alison Critchley – but government needs to be clearer about how trust governance should be structured

If you work in an academy, do you know the “members” for your trust? And, most importantly, do you know what they are responsible for?

No?Well, you’re not alone. In a world of academy governance that is sometimes (unkindly) described as shadowy, members are the least visible element of all.

The trustees (sometimes called directors) are responsible for strategic direction, but it is the members who have the power to hire and fire those trustees and are therefore the ultimate decision-makers.

The concept of members comes from company law and, in a business context, it makes sense. Take this example: friends decide to set up a business. They invest the initial capital and are therefore the owners – “members” – of the business. In this situation, the notion of two or three people having ultimate control is unproblematic; after all, they had the idea, put the investment in – it is, in all senses, theirs.

Why the woolly words? It would be much more helpful if the DfE set out its requirements, then gave all trusts a timescale

Returning to the school scenario, a small group – perhaps the head and one or two governors, or a sponsor – may well have proposed the school becoming an academy. Often these individuals were and are the members. But the notion that this small group of founding members “own” a publicly funded school or group of schools in the same way that the founders of a business own a privately established company is problematic.

“But academies are charitable companies,” you may say. Good point!

The charity sector provides interesting alternative models. For example the RSA, as a charitable company, has a trustee board and it has members.

Everyone who subscribes to the charity is also a member and is therefore invited to the AGM where they receive the annual report and can question the trustees.

So, what needs to happen to introduce more accountability to school governance?

First, the Department for Education (DfE)should be much clearer about the number of members and the separation in personnel between members and trustees.

The latest version of the Academies Financial Handbook, which says more about the role of members, is oddly reluctant to say directly what must or must not happen. For example, it states that:

“While members can also be trustees, retaining some distinction … ensures that members … provide oversight and challenge”;

“DfE encourages trusts to have at least five members”; and

“Governance structures in which members are also employees are not considered by DfE to be best practice.”

Why the woolly words? It would be much more helpful if the DfE set out its requirements, then gave all trusts a timescale, perhaps 12-18 months, within which to comply.

Without this, many trusts will continue to work from outdated articles, not due to the power-mad tendencies of those in charge, but because changing legal documents is costly and complicated and most of us working in education would rather be spending our money and energy elsewhere.

Local accountability is missing from the current model

Clearer direction, however, would still leave an unaccountable group of people effectively “owning” our schools – albeit a separate group of people to those making strategic decisions.

More ambitiously, to rebuild local accountability we should rethink who the members are and how they are appointed. For example, members would be drawn from (and elected by) the school’s parental body, and from staff and the local community. Church schools would have one or two members appointed by the church; sponsored academies would have a similar arrangement, and so on.

More radically still, we could explore a charity model, where all of those with a stake in the school became members.

Thus all parents with children attending the academy or academies would be members, invited to the AGM to receive the accounts and have the opportunity to ask questions of the board.

Where things are going well, attendance and participation in the AGMs would be minimal. But where difficulties arise, this model would reintroduce a level of local accountability that is missing from the current academy model.

 

Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies