Ministers ‘miss chance’ to end power of academy ‘oligarchs’

Ministers have “missed an opportunity” to end the stranglehold of academy “oligarchs” by ignoring warnings in a government-commissioned study.

A £220,000 “investigative” report commissioned by the Department for Education, published this week, found academy governance was at risk of being “too insular”.

A lack of separation in roles was “common practice” with more than half of academy trust chairs also holding positions as members of the trust.

Far too many trusts still do not yet have this important separation of power

But the government’s updated governance handbook published yesterday has failed to outlaw the practice.

Emma Knights, the chief executive of the National Governance Association, said it was a “missed opportunity” to end academy “oligarchs”.

“Those holding multiple governance roles use the argument that it’s needed for communication, but I suspect that really they don’t want to relinquish that power.”

Under the academy governance structure, the trust board is the trust’s decision-making body and is accountable and responsible for the academy.

Meanwhile, the role of members is described as similar to shareholders in a private company. They are charged with safeguarding the academy trust’s governance, but shouldn’t get involved in the day-to-day business of the trust.

But the DfE’s governance report, put together by researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that more than half of academy trust chairs are also a member of the trust.

Plus, about 20 per cent of academy trust trustees reported they were also members.

Researchers warned this “may impact their objectivity and ability to oversee trust governance impartially”.

They said the “lack of separation” needed “effective monitoring and evaluation” by an independent organisation, while observing other boards, “may help to ensure trust boards do not become too insular and are objectively challenged”.

Knights said it was a “real problem. Having two clearly differentiated layers of responsibility and accountability is essential for effective governance and oversight: it is decidedly difficult to challenge yourself fully and objectively.

“Far too many trusts still do not yet have this important separation of power: the justification that is generally used is that having individuals in common helps communication. This isn’t a good enough reason. It’s perfectly possible to communicate well with people to whom you are reporting.”

The governance handbook, updated this week for the first time in 18 months, provides further advice on the role of members.

It says they should “avoid overstepping their powers or undermining the boards’ discretion in exercising its responsibilities”.

“If members also sit on the board of trustees, this reduces the objectivity with which the members can exercise their powers and increases the risk of unchecked ‘group think’ by the board,” it adds.

Where members are trustees, they should “have no greater power than other academy trustees and should remain conscious of the corporate nature of the board’s identify and decision-making and not seek to dominate the board”.

But the department has again refused to go further than stating its “strong preference” is for at least a majority of members to be independent of the board of trustees.

I want to see members really discharging their role to its full extent

However, a Schools Week investigation earlier this year found this wasn’t the case for seven of the largest 52 academy trusts.

The handbook does state that new funding rules from March next year will requires trusts to ensure that its members are not also employees.

A government investigation into the Academies Transformation Trust (ATT), published in 2017, illustrated the potential problems of people holding too many academy roles.

It showed that Stephen Tisley, the trust’s then chair, had put Ian Cleland, the then chief executive, on temporary leave following finance concerns.

However Cleland used his powers as a founding member of ATT to sack Tisley and appoint a new chair alongside three new directors. Those trustees then reinstated Cleland.

Academies minister Baroness Berridge this week said she wants to see “members really discharging their role to its full extent, so they can be assured the trust board is governing effectively”, adding new guidance provides additional clarity.