Review by Vivienne Porritt

26 Feb 2017, 5:00

Welcome to a Multi Academy Trust 2016-17

The book’s audience is as it says on the tin – newly-appointed trustees to multi-academy trusts (MATs).

It is very useful in that it collates knowledge from various sources in one place.

It’s a lot of knowledge though, so the contents page looks overwhelming and runs the risk of putting off anyone from becoming a trustee. But don’t be deterred! Here is your ‘guide to the guide to being a trustee’.

If you’ve never been a school governor before and are considering or about to become a trustee, read the whole book. Chapters 1, 2 and 7 are the best starting points, including Chapter 4 if your background isn’t in education. Then use the book for reference to check your understanding and refresh knowledge. The useful glossary and role descriptions help.

If you’re an existing trustee, use this for reference and evaluation, dipping into it as needed. The review questions in Chapter 2 and Chapter 10 are very useful in that regard.

If you’re a governor of a maintained school or stand-alone academy considering becoming a trustee, read Chapter 2, which explains clearly the significant difference in these two roles.

There is also a detailed explanation of legal responsibilities, and I for one was previously unclear who the members of a MAT can be. It turns out they are ‘signatories to the memorandum of association’. I’m not sure if this explains it but I understood they can remove trustees, so it’s good to know who they are!

The Foreword by Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors Association (NGA) is excellent. If the Contents page puts you off, then read this. It describes the potential impact trustees can have and what they can achieve.

I also enjoyed reading the section on setting vision and strategy in Chapter 2. To me, this is the best part of being a governor and a trustee. I appreciated the quotation from A Framework for Governance: a flexible guide to strategic planning (Wellcome Trust and NGA, 2015):

‘Every school needs to have a long-term strategy based on a shared vision.’

Every school needs to have a long-term strategy based on a shared vision

The chapter offers the following very useful questions to help trustees shape and apply this shared vision across the MAT and with individual academies within the MAT. How do trustees: decide the role of governance across the MAT and of the governors at academy level; balance the needs and identity of one academy with the vision and ethos covering several schools in the MAT; and decide the relationships the MAT and its academies has with their communities?

The NGA asks, indeed exhorts, trustees to draw on local governor bodies and ensure parents are involved. This is a very definite view of NGA and one to which I subscribe.

Within the book, NGA highlights its own usefulness to MAT trustees, which can come across as self-serving and detract from trustees seeing it as an independent source. However, in my experience, the NGA serves the best interest of children, so if all trustees were members of NGA, this would only support trustees to succeed.

It was very good to see sections covering Clarity over Conflict of Interest and Party Transactions in Chapter 3 and, importantly, Financial Responsibilities and Functions in chapter 7. Every trustee should have excerpts from these stuck wherever they’ll see them regularly. Let’s assume the financial scandals – about which we read regularly in Schools Week – wouldn’t have happened if every trustee had received this book on appointment! I recommend that MATs ensure trustees each have a copy of this book from now on.

Will this book prevent MAT trustees from ‘making it up as we go along’, which Knights suggests has been the position for many MATs up to now? She hopes the book will help ‘trustees learn from the others who have gone before’.  So do I. I would hope trustees will think carefully about how they use this learning to set appropriate rather than astronomical salary and bonus levels for CEOs when school budgets are being pared to the bone.

The book certainly isn’t a page turner. It’s a comprehensive reference of what trustees must know to carry out their legal and educational responsibilities. So it’s not a must-read, but rather a must-use book. If all trustees in all MATs use this book to evaluate and improve their practice, then the best interests of all our children and young people will be served.


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