Question: What happens to our existing governing body if we join an existing multi-academy trust?

Christine says: That’s a really good question because what happens to your governing body can depend on the trust you are joining.  The powers trusts delegate down to local governing bodies vary across a spectrum that on one side sees local governors acting as advisory bodies to the multi-academy trust, through to full delegation of powers save those that must be done at trust level.

The most popular model and one that, in my experience, works quite well is one in the middle of that spectrum.

The powers trusts delegate to local governing bodies vary across a spectrum

In that example the trust board would set up committees covering central services such as finance, audit and risk, remunerations, etc.  This leaves the local governing body to concentrate on making those crucial links to the local community and give support and challenge to the head teacher to help raise standards in the school. Where necessary, it may also involve challenging the multi-academy trust around the level of support it is giving the school to help improve those standards.

The ethos can vary significantly between trusts. Some talk about ‘earned autonomy’ for local governance arrangements.  In other words, the better the performance of the academy the more autonomy it will have from the centre.  Personally, I find this a bit patronising. However, I would expect a trust to have very clear rules around when it will take back delegated powers in the event of local management failure.

So my first piece of advice would be to include the governance structure and the future role of local governors in those initial discussions about whether you want to convert or not. Local governors need to decide what they want their role to be post academy conversion and in that discussion, challenge themselves about where their strengths lie and what arrangements are in the best interests of their pupils. This will give those taking a lead on the conversion a clear steer in negotiations with potential multi-academy trusts.

I find ‘earned autonomy’ a bit patronising

Finding out about how the governance works in a preferred multi-academy trust is a key element of the ‘due diligence’ process that needs to be completed before your local governing body takes the final vote on joining a trust.  There are two documents that a maintained school should look at in relation to governance structures:

1. The first is the articles of association that set out how the multi-academy trust is governed. Ideally you need to find the paragraphs that mention local governing bodies and the best way to do that is to download an electronic version and search for ‘local’ to bring up the relevant sections. Don’t let the language put you off – the departments model articles are written in fairly plain English, so easy to understand.

2. The second document to look at is the “scheme of delegation”, which sets out how power, responsibility and accountability is delegated from the board of trustees to the chief executive or executive principal through to head teachers of academies in the trust and local governing bodies. Lots of folk have written about schemes of delegation (including me) and the need to provide absolute clarity about who should be doing what and when and how they are accountable.

Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, writes that top performing multi-academy trusts have “… a clear plan for delegated authority and regularly checks that it is fit for purpose. Local governing bodies are effective at quality assuring standards at their school and the CEO and central team are subject to the same scrutiny. The Trust is successful as a result of the school’s performance and the schools are good because of the Trust. There is top-down and bottom-up accountability”.

Check the arrangements that are in place.  Do they match these high standards?

In essence the role remains the same

Finally, talk to the chief executive of the trust and if you can, to heads of their existing academies to find out about how the governance works in practice. I would argue that a good multi-academy trust values its local governors and you should be on the look out for signs that a culture of bottom-up accountability is encouraged.

While the local governing body may lose some of the routine admin tasks on conversion, in essence the role remains the same – making a positive contribution to children and young people’s education.

Christine is a straight-talking former DfE Academy and Free School policy adviser with a reputation for putting children’s educational needs first. She now runs her own consultancy business CBECS and is Best Practice Network’s Lead Academy Consultant.

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