It’s vital to develop good communication between MAT trustees and local academy committees, says Sam Henson, who has some tips to share

MAT trustees have a lot to think about. Overseeing a single organisation across multiple sites and contexts, is no easy ask. MAT governance should in theory enable more strategically focused governance, with the trust board able to decide what it delegates locally so it can focus on the organisation’s health and success. But trustees need to establish a balance; maintaining a sharp focus on the strategic needs of the organisation as a whole, while ensuring it knows its schools and can act accordingly.

Whenever NGA talk about MAT governance, we emphasise the importance of influence at every tier, even if there is no delegated local decision-making. Without the ability to genuinely influence and feed into trust board decisions, academy committees may soon question the validity of their role. Influence relies on communication channels being clearly defined, used and valued by all. Communication channels between the trust board and those locally can become distorted or neglected, which eventually negatively impacts the organisation’s culture and health. 65% of academy committee respondents to our School Governance in 2018 survey told us that their trust adds value, but what about the rest? One of the issues is that sometimes trusts don’t invest enough time  communicating the trust’s identity and what being part of the trust means.

NGA’s Community MAT network, now entering its third year, has repeatedly informed us that developing communication across the MAT is one of the biggest challenges faced. Good communication is facilitated by a clear framework specifying who is responsible for what and how players work together. Where roles and responsibilities are not clear, confusion reigns and mistrust follows. ‘Invisible’ trust boards hinder strong connections being made across trusts. Mechanisms for trustees and academy committees to talk should not be underestimated, whether that is trustees visiting schools or bringing people together centrally.

Have the academy committees ever even met anyone from the trust board?

As well as providing the MAT board with greater visibility, both approaches provide trustees valuable insight into the implementation of the MAT-wide vision and strategy and assurances that governance arrangements are effective, striking up local conversations and gathering intelligence. Those at local level need to know who to contact on the trust board and how – have they ever even met anyone from the trust board?

In larger or geographically dispersed MATs, it might not be feasible for every school to receive regular visits from trustees, but just one trustee visit once a year can make a huge difference.

Reporting will differ in each trust, but it must work both ways; comprehensive reporting upwards from academy level to the board, that is not reciprocated with reports back to local level can leave those at academy level in the dark. A way to achieve this is to cascade a brief document after board meetings, which includes key updates and decisions, to those at a local level. This is much quicker to communicate than minutes which are subject to approval.

Just because MATs are complex organisations, the way the board communicates does not have to be. Here are some ways to do this well:

Use online communication. An updated and well-designed trust website can be a highly effective platform for sharing news as long as stakeholders know it is there. Some trusts have used social media to great effect, whilst internal intranet platforms may facilitate consistent reporting.

Enable an exchange of ideas and local influence by creating MAT-wide forums for sharing practice, which can also target individual roles such as clerks or chairs. Local voice should be harnessed as a valuable resource, and joint training sessions also provide an opportunity for expectations to be clearly explained.

Celebrating trust success together can be a powerful way of creating a sense of joint ownership. It is a simple way of reminding everyone they are not acting in isolation, but are part of a wider organisation. Some trusts hold annual conferences, where the trust board, executive team, headteachers and academy committee members (or just the chair) attend. Some MATs even hold trust-wide awards, celebrating the success of each respective school and using it as an opportunity to reinforce the trust’s vision.