As evidence grows that the role is at risk of becoming untenable, Emma Knights warns that we can’t afford to take our chairs of trustees for granted

Today, the National Governance Association reports on interviews with 18 MAT chairs and sounds a warning about the sustainability of the role.

This new publication follows our 2019 research that found that, on average, the chair of a multi-academy trust (MAT) gives 50 days a year of their time. Although that is the middle of a considerable range, and the time isn’t evenly spaced, it is the equivalent of a day a week excluding only Christmas and a week in August.

Should the role become – or be perceived to be – unmanageable, some MATs could find themselves with reluctant and underprepared people taking the chair, leaving executives without important challenge and support.

As one put it succinctly: “Nobody should underestimate the amount of time, energy, and personal investment needed to be an effective chair […] and deliver for children and young people.” If the role is only realistically possible if retired or self-employed, this will narrow the diversity in trust boards and the potential candidates.

This clearly demonstrates a need for investment in the executive

Neither the system nor individual trusts must take for granted that volunteers with the motivation and the time to spare will miraculously continue to appear. There is a need to be more proactive in the development of trustee boards and the recruitment of their chairs.  Succession planning is essential. Change is healthy and, in line with many other sectors, NGA suggests that trustees coming towards the end of their second term of office should consider whether a third would actually be best for the organisation.  At present many chairs have been involved in setting up the MATs, have a very strong attachment to them and understandably do not want that important relationship to end. Becoming a member of the trust after leaving the board of trustees is a way to continue that connection.

Being chair of a board is a hugely important role in any organisation, but the chair is actually first amongst equals and has no power as an individual. Getting this balance right and ensuring everyone on the board plays their part is an age old challenge and one that the chair should lead.

The most common strategy being put into place by MAT chairs wanting to ensure sustainability of their role was the delegation of tasks to other trustees, to those governing locally and to trust executives. There are times when chairs are compensating for lack of capacity or knowledge within the executive team, going beyond supporting or acting as a sounding board. This clearly demonstrates a need for development of, and investment in, the executive.

It was found that in some MATs their governance professional had rightly relieved chairs of tasks, not just in administering the board, but also in improving communications across the trust.

Vice chairs are often under-utilised. As well as sharing current tasks, an engaged vice chair is also more likely to become a successor, especially if the practice of two vice chairs is adopted. However there may also be a need for some trusts to embrace the practice, common in the charity sector, of recruiting a chair externally.

Today’s report is in part a good news story of generosity and selflessness: the work unearthed a significant commitment, resilience and passion amongst these volunteers.  Although many would prefer their time commitment to be reduced, they continue to contribute to the MAT’s development and in return have a sense of satisfaction in witnessing its successes and the education its schools provide to pupils.

But it also lifts the lid off the secret lives of chairs. We must and we can ensure talented and committed individuals continue to step forward, but only if we pay attention and make a concerted effort. Organisations with good governance do not fail. Chairs almost always determine the culture and effectiveness of a board, and we must do all we can to ensure they are diverse, effective and committed.