About one in five state funded schools in England is now an academy, and more than half of those are governed by one board of trustees in a multi-academy trust (MAT). The number – and proportion – of academies within a formal group is growing as governing boards realise the risks of remaining isolated, particularly for smaller schools such as the primaries that are converting now.

There is a range of sizes among MATs: many include just two schools, 233 MATs have between 3-5, 62 between 6-10, 19 with between 11-20 and only 12 with more than 20. Our work at the National Governors’ Association suggests it becomes difficult for a board of trustees to monitor closely more than about six schools (depending on the number of pupils); therefore, to be robustly governed bigger groups need a review of governance, with more delegated to local governing committees at schools, committees with responsibility for a cluster of local schools or to the executive management.

But that hasn’t always been done well.

Three years ago the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on education governance and leadership published 20 key questions every governing board should ask itself. While the APPG was reviewing the questions at the end of 2014, it was suggested they needed adjusting for trustee boards of MATs – and so, last Friday, the 21 questions for MATs was launched.

Bigger MATs need a review of governance”

Familiar governance themes persist, but the main addition is a section on structures. Please don’t shout at me – I know people are more important than structures and I don’t want to talk about structures for their own sake, and yes, I do know we are all in the business of improving outcomes for pupils. But MATs have tended to introduce layers of governance, and the lack of clarity about what should be done at each level is causing real barriers to improving schools. The resulting confusion can cause tensions and even disputes between so-called “local governors” and trustees.

The APPG’s 21 questions for MATs include things such as: “Is the structure of the trust from its members to academy level governance conducive to effective working, ensuring check and balances but avoiding duplication at different levels, and delivering good two-way communications?”

In question 6a, it also asks if the trustee board has a scheme of delegation – a framework that makes clear which governance functions are exercised by who – that is published on the trust’s website and those of its academies. The scheme of delegation should determine who is responsible for determining the academy’s vision? Who will recruit each academy’s principal or headteacher? Who performance manages principals and heads? Who has oversight of each academy’s budget and what is the assessment of risk for each academy?

One of the essential elements of good governance is that everyone must understand his or her role; therefore we urge those of you involved with MATs not to use the term “local governors” unless the board has delegated all of the functions listed in 6a to the academy committee. Otherwise it suggests an equivalence with local authority maintained schools governing bodies that is misleading.

The questions have already been welcomed by many, including Lord Nash, parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools, who said: “High quality governance is vital to the success of schools and the quality of education they provide to their pupils. Given the number of schools they oversee, the boards of multi-academy trusts have a particularly significant role and we must do everything we can to help them do it well. I am therefore delighted to see the development of a tool that aims to help MAT boards reflect on and improve their performance. The 20 questions for governing bodies have been hugely popular and I hope that these questions for MATs deliver similar impact.”

The 21 questions can be downloaded at: www.nga.org.uk/News/NGA-News/21Q.aspx

Emma Knights is the chief executive of the National Governors’ Association