New academy rules put trust autonomy at risk, say sector leaders

Sector leaders are warning the new academy trust handbook could undermine board autonomy , and demanding the government confirm whether it spells “broader intervention” in future.

Most of the changes to the rebranded 2021 edition, previously known as the academies financial handbook, are simply pulling in existing school guidance from elsewhere.

Minister Baroness Berridge’s foreword says they include many non-financial rules “by which you are already bound”, helping to make the guide a “one stop shop” for trustees and leaders. Examples include safeguarding, estates and health and safety requirements.

But the broader remit of the guide and a small number of more significant changes have raised questions about how far it could also pave the way for a tighter Whitehall grip on trusts.

One of the biggest reforms is a new requirement for boards to approach their regional schools commissioner when their most senior executive leader plans to leave the trust, whatever the reason for their departure.

This is to “discuss their structure and options, including plans for recruitment”.

“It is highly unusual for the regulator to require the board of an legally independent charity to notify the regulator on changes in executive leadership,” said Leora Cruddas, CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts.

“We need to understand more about the intention behind this requirement.”

Alice Gregson, chief operating officer of Forum Strategy, agreed the DfE must be “clear about the rationale” for such changes.

“I am concerned that the fundamental role and autonomy of trust boards in CEO recruitment could potentially be undermined by being expected to share and discuss their recruitment plans with government.”

She said officials must be “careful to respect the board’s autonomy and contextual wisdom” on recruitment, particularly where trusts are not causing concern.

Sam Henson, director of policy and information at the National Governance Association, who contributed to the updates through a working group, said the latest edition “continues a pattern of introducing more rigorous controls and checks”.

Noting the extra sections, “subtle” change to the handbook’s name and the removal of “Financial” from the new “Notice to Improve”, he added: “It is logical to assume the ESFA will potentially have a broader intervention role for trusts.”

The NGA is also “seeking further clarification”.

But leaders welcomed the consolidation of existing guidance in one place. Gregson said it showed the DfE “now really recognises the importance of clear communication”, and had created a “path of least resistance in understanding roles and expectations”.

A renewed emphasis, if not policy, on ensuring spaces are reserved for parents on trust boards or local governing bodies also drew praise from the CST, Forum Strategy and NGA.

Emma Knights, CEO of the NGA, called it a “very different attitude” to several years ago. Ministers previously planned to scrap the requirement for reserved places for parents, before shelving plans in 2016.

Parents “bring a perspective and knowledge that other governors and trustees may not”, added Knights.

Knights also called the updated handbook’s encouragement of regular external governance reviews an “exceptionally good” addition, with many trusts not using them.

 “At NGA we still come across confusion in the sector as to how members of the trust can fulfil their obligations and satisfy themselves of the good governance of the trust.”

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