From governor to trustee: Thoughts on transition

The role of governor has changed dramatically over the past 10 years; add to the mix the transition from governor to trustee and it’s hardly surprising that academies struggle to recruit those with the right skills and desire to contribute their knowledge and experience. Jill McCall, school business management consultant, gives us insight into a potentially tricky situation

The era of school funding feeling relatively predictable is well and truly over and strategic financial planning – along with the necessity to make tough decisions – is likely to leave those on finance committees somewhat scared and nervous. The role of governor is very different to the role of trustee and all too often I see the trustees of newly formed (and even some well-established) academies paddling around in a quagmire of confusion, lack of direction and financial uncertainty.

When a school becomes an academy there are significant changes to finance. I sometimes see a desire to mirror what was there before – to minimise change and reduce disruption – but the financial year changes and so must the annual meeting timetable along with it; committee structures might need to reflect new structures and, as financial responsibilities change, so do finance systems and reporting formats.

There’s an expectation that, amongst the new trustees, there’ll be someone with professional qualifications or significant financial experience who’ll understand cash flow forecasts, accruals and prepayments, debtors and creditors, management accounts and balance sheets. For SBMs, feeling confident that headteachers and trustees understand and will challenge financial information is essential to feeling that accountability is shared and sits at the right levels.

What can be done to help ease the transition?

  • Implement a complete and consistent induction programme for all trustees. Make sure it includes time spent with the CFO/SBM. Who better to unravel the mysteries of accounting than those at the coal face who can expound the background to the reports, explain the funding and the changes that will come out of becoming an academy?
  • Agree a reporting format that works for everyone. It should provide accurate, up-to-date information in a concise, consistent and understandable format. Using your finance system properly will remove the need to manipulate data thus reducing time and keeping auditors happy. Always include a narrative and ensure information is sent out well ahead of meetings so questions are prepared and focused. Report at a strategic level leaving concerns over a £30 overspend on stationery to the headteacher/SBM.
  • Information overload is likely but imperative. The Academies Financial Handbook is a must. The national governors association have just released Welcome to Governance 2017-18 and Welcome to a Multi Academy Trust 2016-17; both include ‘need to know’ financial information. The Charity Commission provides guidance on being a trustee and effective challenge.
  • Develop a formal training plan to keep skills up-to-date. Choose your trainers carefully; providing an internal finance session will ensure the information is completely relevant. A system of trustee ‘buddies’ often works well.
  • Recruit wisely and strategically. Academy Ambassadors support the recruitment of skilled trustees and their website contains a wealth of information and resources. Succession planning is essential to support the growth and development of any academy trust. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to someone if there is an excess of skills in an area or to recruit on a temporary basis until the ‘right’ person comes along.
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The road ahead will be rocky for those managing school finances and SBMs play a key role in ensuring that those who embrace the challenge of governance in schools and academies are supported in what is still a voluntary role with significant responsibilities and massive expectations.

This article was published in the March issue of Education Executive.

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