Flexible governance is key to solving MAT problems

6 Jul 2020, 5:00

Many trusts have proved that they are able to cope with the unpredictable – and the flexibility within their structure has helped them, says Sam Henson

The pandemic has taught us much about school accountability, but also about the flexibilities school structures give to organisations that need to act quickly and effectively. Across the country, schools within academy trusts have embraced a sense of togetherness with a deep appreciation for the direction provided by their trust board and executive leadership teams.

A sense of stability and clear, confident messaging to stakeholders has also meant that the stakeholders have, in some cases, viewed multi-academy trusts (MATs) through a slightly different lens. Government guidance and sector voice have provided vital information, but much of what has really mattered to our schools and their communities has happened at middle-tier and local level. In the case of MATs, the sense of a collective organisational identity and direction has evolved at a renewed pace.

When I recently interviewed Professor Deborah Eyre from High Performance Learning, she made the point that governance is all about grappling with the big questions. The past few months have tested trustee boards. Many of these groups of committed, diverse and informed decision-makers have had to agree answers to some of the biggest questions they will ever have to face.

While trustees have largely put liability fears to one side, they have taken their employer responsibilities extremely seriously. It is to their credit that many boards have retained their ambitious visions and inclusive cultures, going beyond the bare minimum required to provide for their pupils. In cases this has meant rapid changes to key policies and schemes of delegation, sometime pausing all local governance – which is made possible because of the flexible nature of MAT governance.

Trusts with a strong community ethos have engaged positively with the local voice

This flexibility was a theme identified in our association’s Moving MATs Forward: the Power of Governance document, published just a year ago. In this, we discussed how trusts with a strong community ethos have engaged positively with the local voice, and so have engaged more with their local tiers of governance. This has resulted in a collective sense of understanding and therefore active support for and championing of decision-making across the trust and within their communities.

An increased sense of collaboration between schools, trusts, local authorities and government, often with a renewed appreciation of the challenges faced by each, has emerged since the pandemic. For as long as public health guidance is needed, this broader engagement will continue to be needed and should be acknowledged as critical for dealing with any local outbreaks. This collaboration has also strengthened the management of risk and the determination of risk appetite. Having something in common is a great equaliser and witnessing this collaboration has been one of the few positives arising from the pandemic.

The past few months have brought a different sense of perspective. There will be a “new normal” in September, with trustee boards continuing to grapple with big questions such as the need to maintain an ambitious vision, but with key priorities that must also embrace the fall-out from Covid.

Such questions carry structural implications for a renewed, shared and owned sense of purpose that can be greatly strengthened through strong local governance arrangements that communicate well with the trustee board and executive teams. Developing strong communications during times of stress and anxiety is never easy, and as September beckons, a community perspective seen through the eyes of local governance committees should be sought to assess the longer-term implications of the pandemic at school level.

Getting governance right is the key to ensuring a MAT system that is sustained and that delivers in the interest of children. So many trusts have proved that they are able to cope with the unpredictable, and the flexibility within their structure has helped them.

Governance is the framework that will allow the system and the people within it to flourish. Although it is often perceived to be a hindrance, for many of the problems MATs are facing, it is the fundamental solution.

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