Julie McCulloch, primary and governance specialist of ASCL, asks what will universal academisation mean for school governance?
The government’s new white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, has inspired its fair share of column inches over the last few weeks. The proposal that has proved by far the most controversial – universal academisation – has far-reaching implications for how schools in England are governed. Despite a government U-turn on the policy, full academisation may still be a reality.
So what are the implications, and how might we see school governance changing if this policy goes ahead?
The ticking clock
The flagship proposal in the white paper is for every school to be an academy, or to be in the process of converting to become one, by the end of 2020. As now, high performing maintained schools will continue to be encouraged to apply to convert, and underperforming schools will continue to be required to be sponsored. What’s changed is the ticking clock, and the warning that, where schools have not started the conversion process by 2020, the government “will take steps to direct them to become academies so that by 2022 we will have brought a definitive end to the role of local authorities in maintaining schools”.
Strength in numbers
The white paper makes clear the expectation that most schools will form or join multi-academy trusts (MATs), allowing them to “operate in strong, resilient structures which raise standards”. It’s this shift which will lead to the biggest change in how schools are governed.
MATs are charitable companies, and their governance structure reflects this. The basic governance structure of most MATs looks like this:
The members are usually a small group of people (often no more than four), who may only meet a couple of times a year. They are sometimes described as akin to shareholders in a company, but a more helpful way to think of them is as the keepers of the MAT’s vision and ethos. Arguably their most important task is to appoint the next level of governance: the trustees.
The trustees (sometimes called directors, as they are the directors of the charitable company) are responsible for holding all the schools in the MAT to account. These roles come with specific legal responsibilities, including ensuring the organisation remains solvent and spends money in accordance with its charitable objectives, ensuring the schools in the MAT provide a good standard of education, and managing any conflicts of interest.
Most MATs also have some form of governance at a local school level. The most common approach is to retain a local governing body for each school, although some instead choose to establish issues-based committees that might focus on, for example, teaching and learning, or HR, across all the schools in the MAT.
Every MAT is required to have a scheme of delegation, which clarifies which decisions will be taken at the board level, and which at the local governing body or committee level. What is delegated can vary between schools in a MAT, with strong schools being given a long leash, and struggling schools being more closely monitored.
What will all this mean?
Much of this is uncharted waters. No one knows quite what the school system in England will look like in five, ten or twenty years’ time. The best MAT leaders and governors are learning from each other, and adapting their approach to take on board the emerging evidence around what works, and what doesn’t work, in this new landscape.
Only time will tell whether this unprecedented shift in the way schools are governed will indeed lead, as the government hopes, to ‘educational excellence everywhere’.