Governance

Progress towards more, better local governance has halted

Ministers must intervene early to prevent halted progress on local governance turning to regression

Ministers must intervene early to prevent halted progress on local governance turning to regression

26 Oct 2023, 5:00

The past month has been an opportunity for the trusts sector to take stock. Party conference season is always a chance to reflect on the evolution of our school system and consider the likely policy agenda moving forward. Events hosted by organisations in the sector, including NGA’s MAT governance conference, have also provided an opportunity to hear from policy makers, and to share ideas.

Ahead of our conference, we identified three big issues facing the sector – the role of Ofsted in MATs; the growth of the trusts sector and sustainability of the current ‘mixed economy system; and the place of local governance in trusts. Of these three issues, it is local governance which usually attracts the least attention. Sadly, it is also where a positive story of steady progress has been halted in 2023.

For many people, local governance can look like a niche issue. As the lowest tier of governance within a trust, it does not hold legal accountability for the academies it governs. To some, it might look like a relic of the old maintained structure which academies have left behind.

Of course, this is not NGA’s view. More importantly, it is not the view of the wider sector. Despite local governance being purely optional, the vast majority have chosen to establish it within their trusts. In recent years, NGA annual governance surveys have found that 98 per cent of trusts have some form of local governance arrangements and over 90 per cent of MAT trustees who answered believed that all trusts should have local governance.

The sector has, therefore, made its view clear. While many of the innovations of the trusts system have fizzled out as MATs have matured and built a better understanding of what works, local governance has gone from strength to strength. It has proved its worth and is now a key feature of almost every trust across the country. This was reflected in last year’s government white paper, which stated that all trusts should have local governance and it would consult on implementation.

Retreat on both policy and practice is cause for concern

At the time, this looked like a vital recognition of what NGA and others in the sector have long known and advocated for. In hindsight, it looks worryingly like a high-water mark from which the quality and focus on local governance retreated.

Despite the DfE being so positive and committed regarding the role of local governance in the 2022 white paper, that focus centrally has subsequently waned, with the value placed on local governance now left to the discretion of MATs themselves.

The regulatory and commissioning review noted that “the overwhelming majority of MATs now have local tiers”, but failed to address the white paper’s commitment to work with the sector to ensure local governance was present in all trusts and to share best practices. Similarly, the new trust quality descriptors, despite including governance, fail to mention local governance at any point. 

Maybe most worryingly, the department’s approach has been accompanied by concerning findings in our annual governance survey, published last month. For the first time, after years of steady progress, local governors were less optimistic about the quality of communication between the local tier and trustees and less confident that their views were heard by executive leaders and trustees. For now, these changes remain relatively minor, but the combination of retreat on both policy and practice is cause for concern.

In regard to local governance, the often-repeated point is that the department does not want to prescribe a single approach to trust governance. Autonomy and innovation are, of course, part of the raison d’etre for the trust model. NGA agree, but there is a world of difference between prescribing a specific model and giving trusts the freedom and support to build an effective local governance structure in their context.

The DfE should use its platform to promote the importance of local governance, as promised in the white paper, and to share evidenced practices of when local governance is at its most effective. The sector has shown how much it values local governance by its near-universal adoption and by devoting time and resources to getting it right. Now, ministers must support the sector in making local governance the best it can be.

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