The leading body for school governance wants academy trust chairs also serving as members to give up one of their roles to end a “minimal elite with a disproportionate ability to mark their own homework”.
It comes as a Schools Week investigation finds 34 of the 52 largest academy trusts have an academy trust chair who is also a member. A member has a similar role to that of a shareholder in a private company.
If they are essentially the same bunch of people, power is directed to a minimal elite with a disproportionate ability to mark their own homework
While this is allowed under academy rules, the National Governance Association (NGA) has now called on those chairs to “reconsider their position” if holding both roles.
The Department for Education’s “strong preference” is for a majority of members to be independent of the board of trustees.
But Schools Week also found that at seven of the largest trusts, the majority of members were not independent.
Sam Henson, director of policy and information at the NGA, said members have a role in “casting an eye over how effective the governance of the trust is, and so they have to be free from conflict to do so”.
“If they are essentially the same bunch of people, power is directed to a minimal elite with a disproportionate ability to mark their own homework. This all comes down to the different roles, within both the governance and executive tiers being understood and well communicated.”
The Academies Enterprise Trust has two trustees – Andrew Thraves and David Hall – that make up its three members.
The trust said it had an “explicit agreement” with the government as part of its turnaround plan that Hall, its chair, would be a member.
A spokesperson added now its turnaround is complete, new members are being recruited. Hall will step down as a member.
The Outwood Grange Academies Trust has four members, two of which are trustees – Roland Harden and David Earnshaw, who is also chair of trustees.
Earnshaw has also been chosen by the DfE to chair the new Falcon Education Academies Trust to take over schools shunned by other sponsors in the north.
Ormiston Academies Trust and Hamwic Education Trust both have three members, two of whom are trustees.
Ormiston said its articles of association requires its members to include the chair of trustees and its sponsor. “Our Trust has strong governance to ensure we are delivering the best possible outcomes for our pupils.”
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Ely Multi-Academy Trust and the Academy Transformation Trust have four members, two of whom are trustees.
In addition, Ark’s member is the Ark Absolute Return for Kids charity, and two of its four trustees are also trustees at Ark academy trust.
Academy rules state there should be “significant separation” between members and trustees. If not this “may reduce the objectivity with which the members can exercise their powers”.
But Sam Henson added many trusts are still operating on historic articles of association. “There is little, if anything, to enforce or even encourage separation beyond what the guidance says, so trusts themselves are sometimes reluctant to see this as a priority.”
The NGA wants the government to “set a firm expectation for complete separation between those at a local level, trustees, executives and members”.
However, Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), said having a trustee serving as a member can help with the task of “keeping members informed”.
“We do not believe that having one trustee also serving as a member inevitably reduces the objectivity with which the Members exercise their powers.”
Instead of calling for more compliance, CST wants the debate to be “more constructive about effective arrangements to keep members informed so that they can operate effectively at this crucial tier of governance”.
The largest trusts with chairs serving as a member include REAch 2, AET, Delta Academies Trust and Harris Federation.
A REAch2 spokesperson said the arrangement is “entirely in line with DfE policy”, adding the arrangement “facilitates a healthy governance link between the members and the wider board”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said rising standards many trusts are delivering is “testament to the good governance already in place… We work with trusts to discuss changing their articles on a case by case basis, taking into account the circumstances of each trust.”