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Local governance: to have or not to have?

Paul Baglee, from Newham Partnership Working (NPW), discusses the role of local governing bodies in MATs

Posted by Hannah Vickers | June 04, 2017 | People, policy, politics

The role of Local Governing Bodies (LGB) within Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) is one that continues to be scrutinised. Where, on the spectrum between Local Advisory Boards and full delegation of powers for LGBs, should MATs be positioning their governance strategy?  

The ultimate point of accountability for a MAT is the board, but the vast majority of MATs delegate at least some of their responsibilities to a local governance group. Here, we look at the options available, the benefits of delegation and the potential pitfalls, and offer our recommendations.

Options for MAT delegation

Any group to which responsibility is delegated will, in effect, be a committee of the MAT board. The Department for Education’s Governance Handbook refers to these as Local Governing Bodies (LGBs), but they may also be known by other names, such as Local Advisory Boards or Local Committees. These most commonly oversee one school, but can oversee more, and in a larger MAT there may be a further committee that oversees a cluster of LGBs.

It is for the board to decide on the governance structure that best meets the needs of the MAT and it should keep the effectiveness of this structure under close review. The responsibilities of a LGB will be set out in a Scheme of Delegation, which should also be kept under close review, and which can be tailored for different LGBs within the same MAT. Some key responsibilities, such as signing off the annual audited accounts, cannot be delegated.

The benefits of LGBs

For both MATs and individual schools, retaining LGBs has numerous benefits.

Firstly, retaining LGBs will result in greater distribution of the workload of governance within the Trust. The more schools there are in a MAT, the more difficult it is for a Trust board to ensure that it can provide adequate oversight. Keeping school LGBs in place will allow greater scrutiny of things such as progress and attainment, as LGB members can focus solely on their school instead of having a board member attempting to oversee multiple schools. This allows the board to focus on overarching performance, finance, strategy and staffing.   

The value of local and school knowledge held by LGBs should not be underestimated

The value of local and school knowledge held by LGBs should not be underestimated. Members can provide a direct interface between governance and school stakeholders, passing relevant information onto parents and teachers and vice versa, from stakeholders back to the Trust board. Retaining the LGB of a converter school allows members to share their knowledge with the board, and offers a wider pool of specialist skills and expertise that the board can draw upon.

Keeping a school’s LGB will also provide access to the network of other LGBs in the area. This can provide opportunities in areas such as joint training, sharing good practice, visiting other schools to see how they operate or development of a common governor induction programme.

There can also be reciprocal arrangements across LGBs for involvement in such things as staff disciplinary committees. Link governors will have the opportunity to work together on common areas such as safeguarding and inclusion to help standardise practice across the MAT.

Finally, having school LGBs allows trustees and members complete control of Trust board make-up. A structure that only has a MAT board – and not LGBs – must have at least two elected parents.

What to watch out for

On the other side of the coin, there are potential pitfalls to retaining school LGBs.

The Trust board will need to keep a close eye on the effectiveness of its LGBs. The board cannot delegate overall accountability and needs to ensure that LGBs are completely clear about their remit and are aware of any changes to delegation of functions.

There needs to be complete clarity of who is responsible for what, to ensure that important areas of work are not missed or duplicated. This is particularly pertinent in being clear on who ultimately holds the Headteacher or Head of School to account. 

It’s important for boards to retain a balance between maintaining overall accountability and delegation of powers

Similarly, it’s important for boards to retain a balance between maintaining overall accountability and delegation of powers - the LGB should feel that it has a meaningful purpose or there is a risk that members can become demotivated, leading to high turnover.

There also needs to be an efficient method of communication and reporting between the Trust board and LGBs – this is a basic principle that often gets overlooked.

Finally, the board will need to regularly review the structure to ensure that it is effective. As MATs grow it will become more difficult for the Trust board to have close oversight of LGBs and therefore schools. If schools are wide-spread geographically it may also be difficult for all LGBs to benefit equally from training and networking opportunity.

Furthermore, the more LGBs there are the greater the cost to the MAT in terms of company secretarial support, clerking and governance development.

The verdict

The decision to establish local governing bodies rests with the MAT. As conversion from standalone maintained school to academy as part of a MAT is a significant transformation, our general advice to the clients we are supporting through conversion is to retain local governance in the first instance.

This provides a degree of consistency through a significant transformation, makes best use of the skills and experience of governors and offers confidence to stakeholders that their voice will continue to be heard in a more complex governance structure.

The best MATs don’t stand still, and as they evolve so will their governance

The best MATs don’t stand still, and as they evolve so will their governance. However, losing the local connection without good reason is a significant decision where the risk and benefits will need to be carefully weighed.

Paul Baglee is Head of Governance at Newham Partnership Working (NPW). NPW has developed a MAT Pack which provides wraparound support from the first conversation about partnership to academy conversion and beyond.

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