Too many multi-academy trusts are struggling under poor governance at trust level, says Michael Pain, but Forum Education has some suggestions for improvement

Ask most academy trust leaders about the most fundamental challenge for the multi-academy trust system and they will tell you about the massively varying quality of governance. So while some MATs are developing strong boards, many others find it difficult to recruit and retain people of the necessary calibre – a reality that presents a major risk to an education system with well over 1,000 MATs, in which so much power, responsibility and oversight now sits at trust board level.

When governance really goes wrong it isn’t pretty: we hear about conflicts of interest, excessive CEO pay and financial mismanagement, all of which do serious damage to the system and detract from the great work leaders and teachers do at the majority of MATs. In many other less eye-watering cases, trust boards are still struggling to govern these increasingly complex organisations effectively. Parents and the public need to be assured that leaders have the ability to ensure that schools and children thrive.

This summer, Forum Education consulted academy trust CEOs and trustees from across our regional leaders’ networks to ask how the challenges associated with MAT governance could be improved through better trustee recruitment and training. We have published a report setting out a range of ideas, but three recommendations stand out as quick wins.

More member engagement

First, the quality of a board depends fundamentally on the chair, who plays a central role in engaging stakeholders in the work of the trust, and preparing and recruiting high-calibre people to serve on the board. They must make sure trustees receive induction and training of sufficient quality. However, the people who appoint trustees and keep an eye on the board’s performance – members – are almost entirely invisible, and in some cases too disengaged. We believe this is a fundamental concern for MAT governance.

Members of academy trusts quite rightly own nothing

Members are analogous to company shareholders – an analogy that works until you consider that shareholders have vested interests in the company’s performance through their shares. Members of academy trusts quite rightly own nothing, but while they are expected to be largely hands-off, they must also be motivated enough to scrutinise the chair and board’s performances, and to demand improvements where necessary. From the feedback we’ve received, too many members are eyes-off.

So we need more openness about who the members are, what their motivations are, and what kinds of experience they bring. The report recommends that trust websites should include a statement from each member on what motivates them in the role, and the skills and experience they bring. It also recommends that the DfE undertake a full audit of members, and establish a charter for them to sign, setting out their duties to the trusts and the children they serve. This isn’t about creating more upheaval through further structural reform, so much as focusing members’ minds to ensure quality.

Incentives for trustee recruitment

Second, in terms of recruiting trustees, we believe there should be more help from government. Being a MAT trustee is very time-consuming and this can be a significant barrier to attracting talented professionals with busy working lives. The report recommends that the DfE consider introducing an incentive scheme requiring organisations of a certain size to support a proportion of staff to become MAT trustees. Such a scheme should resemble corporate social responsibility schemes, and provide employees with professional development opportunities.

Improve trustee training

Third, to prevent some of the recurring issues of failed governance, our paper recommends that training for trustees includes an overview of procurement law, how to reduce, address and managing conflicts of interest, and executive pay (with associated guidance on benchmarking). This would develop better understanding across the system, and we suggest that such training should be accessed by trustees every two years to keep them up to date with the latest guidance and legislative requirements. Ofsted could even look at whether trustees have attended, and evaluate whether it improves best practice across a trust.

The report and its recommendations are intended to spark debate. We want it to focus minds because the stakes are simply too high to leave the quality of academy trust governance to chance any longer.

Michael Pain is CEO of Forum Education