Local governing bodies in academies shouldn't hold trustees to account, says sector expert

The role of local governing bodies in schools is not to hold trustees to account as they exist to execute the board’s overall vision, an academies expert has claimed.

Leora Cruddas (pictured), chief executive of pro-academy group Freedom and Autonomy for Schools, said governors on local bodies for individual schools in an academy trust are actually “committees” for the trust, and not mini-boards.

Speaking this morning at the annual conference for ICSA the Governance Institute, when asked about LGBs challenging trustees, Cruddas warned against a “local authority mindset” in which schools were used to querying council decisions.

Meanwhile, a senior member of the National Governance Association warned some trusts are misleading LGBs into thinking they will have autonomy within the trust, when they actually won’t.

Cruddas said the role of LGBs should not reflect that depicted in the BBC’s recent Panorama investigation into Bright Tribe, in which local governors sent Freedom of Information requests to trustees to find out what decisions were being made.

When asked by a delegate whether local governing bodies shouldn’t also challenge trust boards in case poor decisions are being made, Cruddas said: “Technically it is the trust, not the local governing body, that should be setting the vision for the schools and making decisions.”

She added the trust would “hopefully” take the views of LGBs into account when making decisions.

The delegate pressed back, arguing that as a representative of the local community, the LGB ought to be able to challenge trust boards if decisions contradict the original terms under which a school joined.

But Cruddas said this view was a misunderstanding of the LGB and trustee roles.

“The trust is not some pseudo-local authority,” she said, adding the schools were themselves the trust and the trust were the schools. “The vision has to be set across the whole organisation.”

“This is a local authority mindset,” said Cruddas, who was formerly a director of education at two London local authorities. “We’ve got to get away from that mindset.”

Cruddas’ words come as she prepares to head up FASNA under a new name as the Confederation of School Trusts, which will be a membership organisation for academy trusts.

Her stance that LGBs are actually “committees” is also echoed in a recent terminology change by the NGA.

On its website, the NGA says the term local governing body is “often used to describe a committee of a trust board for an individual school within a MAT” and recommends calling the body an “academy committee” instead.

Not calling LGBs by their proper name as “committees” is leading to confusion and frustration among their members, warned Sam Henson, head of information at the NGA.

He said trusts are unwittingly misleading schools by promising them autonomy and little interference once they are part of the chain.

“The term ‘autonomous’ is unhelpful because actually that’s not going to be true,” Henson told delegates.

Trusts need to explain to schools they won’t be governing themselves “in the truest sense of the word” and be clear about the “limitations of the role” of LGBs.

That’s why the NGA has switched to referring to LGBs as committees instead, he added.

“We need to get this right. It can be a tricky relationship.”

Henson also reminded the room, made up of governors and trustees from multi-academy chains, that delegation to the local committees “can be removed.”

Academy trust E-ACT, which has 29 academies, went public with its decision to scrap its governing bodies in favour of “academy ambassadorial advisory bodies” in 2016.

At the time the NGA applauded their announcement, saying many other trusts have already done the same without being honest about it.

Correction: The original article included the word ‘challenge’ in the first paragraph, which we have since replaced with ‘hold to account’ to ensure what Cruddas said is represented correctly.