Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, writes:
Who owns our state schools?
For academies, the answer may be people you have never heard of: the trust’s members. The members are the top of the tree in academy trusts, and I am not talking about trustees.
Members are the small number of people who appoint trustees (though not necessarily all of them), remove trustees and meet at the AGM to agree the trust’s audited accounts. They are not literally the owners, but they can wield much power when they need to.
A handful of members is not a sound governance model for a public service. It can make sense in a small business founded and initially funded and owned by those people. Company shareholders are frequently cited as being equivalent to members of trusts, but it a very tenuous equivalence, especially as there are often a very large number of shareholders.
So why not consider a third-sector model of membership? After all, academy trusts are charities. The NGA has lots of members; the RSA and the National Trust have lots of members; many charities do. Why shouldn’t academy trusts?
All parents and other interested people in the community, potentially organisations in the local area, could be allowed to become members of the academy trust – as many as wanted to join. They would all then have the right to attend the AGM to do what members are already expected to do – agree the accounts, appoint trustees and remove any if necessary.
Of course, not every member will turn up, but the most interested will and in times of crisis, quite rightly, many others will arrive. I am not a completely fluffy idealist; having worked in membership organisations for a considerable amount of time, I know very well that effort has to be made to engage a broad cross section of people and much thought is needed about how to attract those who are least likely to get on a soapbox.
But this would be a returning of power over such an important public service, as our state schools provide to the community, through participative democracy. It could transform the legitimacy of the academy governance model and is in the spirit of the “moral purpose” of the original academy movement. But it will involve some of those who currently have the power giving it back. That will take courage, vision and a belief that a school belongs to its community, not a small number of people who may be very far removed.
Let’s have a debate.