How to ensure trustees make informed decisions on growth

Academy trusts’ growth plans should be underpinned by principles that streamline decision-making and ensure trustees are well-informed

Academy trusts’ growth plans should be underpinned by principles that streamline decision-making and ensure trustees are well-informed

1 May 2024, 12:56

With the widespread financial challenges facing schools and the benefits that come from being part of a bigger network, we are seeing rapid growth within many Multi-Academy Trusts across the country.

A trust’s (or school’s) board plays an intrinsic role in the organisation’s strategic plan, and securing the support of trustees is fundamental to effective expansion.

As chair of London South East Academies Trust (LSEAT), which is currently on its own growth journey, it is my role to ensure our board has all the information it needs to make the right decisions.

But how can you get trustees on side while ensuring that adequate challenge and consideration are provided?

To that end we have developed a set of growth, strategic and design principles in partnership with the trust’s executive teamIn the same way as commercial enterprises operate, these principles provide a framework that enable a trust and its board to effectively assess whether a school would be a sustainable and beneficial fit.

Principles for growth 

Growth principles look at the type of provision being offered and how it would align with our existing schools.

For example, we are currently growing our mainstream primary hub as well as a specialist hub in Surrey. Would the proposed school fit with either of these (targeted growth)? Or, are we looking at diversifying our offer further? If the latter, then would the proposed school be able to play a role in leading a new hub? Alternatively, do we have a gap in our provision that a proposed school could help fill?

Setting out these growth categories ensures trustees can quickly understand the context of the opportunities being put forward, reflecting the strategic process and thorough consideration that a leadership team will have undertaken to reach this point.

Strategic fit

Thesewide-ranging criteria look at where the proposed school is located, its financial performance, the condition of its estate, right through to whether it shares our trust’s values, culture and ethos. We also consider its Ofsted outcomes, its relationships with the local authority and local community and how it is governed.

These aspects will paint a clear picture for trustees of the capacity, financial and staffing resources that may be needed going forward – and the challenges that may characterise any transfer.

Design for success

Awareness of these challenges leads us onto the design principles, and consideration of risks.

Trusts grow at different rates. Grow too quickly, without the supporting infrastructure in place, and the trust has a high risk of failing. But it’s not just about the pace of growth. Taking a failing school through an improvement process requires extensive resource from other parts of the trust.

We take a systems leadership approach, drawing on outstanding leadership and staff expertise within our network of schools. But if there isn’t enough capacity to support this, it can lead to the dramatic de-stabilisation of our other schools. This is something we couldn’t and wouldn’t risk.

Therefore, our design principles focus on ensuring that we only grow when we have the capacity and resources to do so, understanding and accepting all the associated risks. This includes ensuring we have sufficient reserves to address future challenges and invest in infrastructure ahead of growth where possible.

Measured growth

By having such principles in place, both the executive team and its board can measure growth options against a consistent framework. Not only does this enable trustees to make informed decisions, it provides a clear understanding of the opportunities and risks from the outset, giving them agency to ask the right questions and fully consider any risks.

Setting out clear goals aligned with an agreed set of criteria is central to our trust’s approach to growth. It keeps our governance focused on ensuring the trust is fit for purpose, achieving its strategic aims, and doing so sustainably.

A combination of growth, strategic and design principles enables us to ensure the education we provide is the best it can possibly be across all our settings, established and new.

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