The new system of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is propelling school governance into uncharted territory – and the collapse of Wakefield City Academies Trust is the most high-profile example yet of how it can go wrong.
Amid financial problems and concerns about academic standards, the MAT announced in September that it would give up all 21 of its academies. The scandal has focused attention on how MAT boards and their members and trustees run schools.
Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association (Fasna) network, is clear that WCAT was “first of all a failure of governance”. “The biggest challenge for the emerging MAT sector is to understand that governance of a large and complex organisation that is its own legal entity is significantly different from other forms of school governance,” she says.
The need for training for MAT board members is recognised by the Department for Education, which this month awarded the National Governance Association (NGA) a contract for “governance leadership development” aimed at boards governing MATs and other groups of schools.
However, the demise of WCAT highlights not just an issue about how the trustees of MATs are trained, but also broader concerns about the concentration of power over whole groups of schools in the hands of a few individuals, and questions about who is holding them to account.
Last week, Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, wrote to education minister Lord Agnew about WCAT making “significant and unwarranted transfers of assets” from its schools as it neared collapse, adding that “a more robust system of oversight could have prevented this”.
Emma Knights, NGA chief executive, has proposed a radical solution to make trusts more accountable to their communities.
Currently, the people who hold the ultimate power in an academy trust are its members. Sometimes compared with the shareholders of a company, they are a small group of as few as three people who can appoint and remove trustees.
For Knights, this role should be thrown open to all parents and other interested people in the community. For her, this proposal “could transform the legitimacy of the academy governance model and is in the spirit of the ‘moral purpose’ of the original academy movement”.
Meanwhile, Ofsted is keen to be given the power to fully inspect multi-academy trusts, rather than just the schools they run – a change the DfE has been resisting.
But while there are concerns about whether the external scrutiny of MATs is sufficient, there are also questions about accountability within a trust. If local governing bodies are appointed by the MAT’s trustees, count trustees among their members, and only have the powers the trustees give them, how effectively can they hold the MAT to account on their school’s behalf?
For Philip Burton, who was chair of governors at Cromer Academy in Norfolk when it joined the Inspiration Trust in 2013, this issue was a key reason for his resignation from the school’s local governing body a year later.
In his resignation letter, he wrote: “Part of the role of LGBs (local governing bodies) is to hold the executive to account insofar as each academy is affected, whether that be in the context of the performance of the principal and senior teaching staff or of the CEO and corporate managers.
“How can that happen effectively when the CEO is also chairing the LGB as a governor? There is a clear conflict of interest here.”
Inspiration has rejected Burton’s concerns, saying it “has high standards of governance and any suggestion its approach is flawed is false and inaccurate”.
In 2012, Michael Gove, who was education secretary at the time, lamented “local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work”, and called for smaller governing bodies with members appointed because of their skills.
But Knights raises concerns about the commitment of high-flyers who are recruited as trustees of MATs covering a large area, when compared with governors who have individual connections to their local school.
“They don’t always have the time to do the job or are not always so committed to the trust,” she says. For example, if they have an important business meeting in Singapore that clashes with a trust board meeting, which would they choose, she asks rhetorically.