The multi academy trust is an increasingly common form of school governance. Should governors embrace the change or make more fuss as they lose their decision-making powers?

A school governance revolution, arguably as fundamental as devolving local management to schools after the Education Reform Act 1988, is going on largely unnoticed in England. The changes didn’t need a special clause in an act of parliament, they began slowly after the Academies Act 2010, not really gathering any sort of momentum for a couple of years. However, now we are likely to see it becoming the most common form of school governance. It is the rise of the multi-academy trust (MAT).

At the end of 2015, one-quarter of state funded schools in England were academies, and of those, 59 per cent were in MATs. This is a growing percentage: 81 per cent of academies that opened in the 2014/15 academic year did so as part of a MAT, up from 73 per cent in 2013/14. Eleven MATs have more than 30 schools, covering 8 per cent of academies – and will be the ones that you probably have heard of.

This revolution does not involve barricades

A further 11 per cent of academies are in middle-sized MATs of 10-29 schools, leaving 39 per cent in small MATs of fewer than 10 schools, a number that is likely to rise, especially once the government’s white paper is published. However, the advantages for pupils of being part of a group of schools must be spelt out to win the hearts and minds of more governing bodies.

This revolution does not involve barricades, rather the least revolutionary vehicle possible – the scheme of delegation (SoD). And this is no doubt why this very fundamental change has been largely under the radar; until recently you had to be a governance geek to understand the significance of the SoD.

When a standalone school joins a MAT, its governing board had to hand its power to the trust’s board of trustees. A local governing body (LGB) at academy level may continue to exist, but it is now a committee of the MAT board with a role decided by that overarching board and documented in the SoD. At any point the MAT board can amend its SoD – and add to or take away responsibilities from that local governing body. Boards of trustees in MATs do need to get better at spelling out clearly the role of any academy level committee in the SoD, and the National Governors’ Association (NGA) can help them do it.

At NGA, we are not fond of LGB members being called governors, as this suggests they have the same sort of role as governors in a maintained school, when few have. We have read a large number of SoDs and, by and large, LGBs (or the more aptly named academy advisory councils) tend to have monitoring duties and a community engagement role. Few are left with decision-making powers, some of which are delegated by the MAT board to the executive, the employed leaders of the trust. For example, performance management of heads is most appropriately carried out by their line manager, who may come with a variety of titles – executive head, chief executive or possibly education director.

Given that this seems to be the beginning of the end of decision-making by “governors” at school level, should the NGA be shouting about this? We are half way through nine regional discussions to gauge our members’ views, and so far most say that if joining a group of schools improves the offer to and outcomes for pupils, then we shouldn’t be precious about trying to maintain what has become our traditional role.

Another element of governance is “how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered”. Academy level committees can have an extremely important role in ensuring that the voices of parents, pupils, staff and the wider community are heard by the executive leadership and the board of trustees, and that reports are made to them. The challenge to those that govern at academy level is to embrace this role, rather than mourn what has gone before.

The article has been amended to change an incorrect sub-heading which said the multi-academy trust was the most common form of governance. It  is, instead, “increasingly common”.