Academy chains unlocked III: meeting the need for high-quality academy governance

22 September 2016

This week Reform launched the report Academy chains unlocked, which included results from the first survey of academy chain chief executives. This is the third blog in the series highlighting findings from the report on professionalising governance.

Governors have a crucial role in schools. They are responsible for ensuring the school has a clear strategic vision, holding headteachers to account and overseeing the school’s finances. These tasks are particularly challenging in academy schools, as academies hold financial liabilities, such as for pensions, that may otherwise have been taken by the local authority. With more schools becoming academies, the need for high-quality skilled governance has never been more apparent. In a report published by Reform this week, we set out the changes that must be made in order to achieve this.

Reform’s report highlights three issues with the current framework. The first issue is time. The report includes results from the first survey of academy chains. Eighty-eight per cent of CEOs said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the skill sets of those with governance roles. The remaining 12 per cent were dissatisfied. One chief executive said the problem was having the time, not skills. A survey carried out by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and Times Educational Supplement in 2015 found that 40 per cent of employed governors do not receive their additional leave entitlement for governors.

To address this problem, Reform recommends giving academy chains the power to pay governors. With the additional responsibilities involved in governing academies, it may not always be possible to attract people with enough time to govern effectively on a purely volunteering basis.

The second issue is skills-based recruitment. Reform’s survey found parenthood to be the least highly valued attribute among CEOs for trustees and the executive board, whereas attributes such as financial, accounting or legal experience and leadership skills were much more highly valued. At a local level, parenthood was highly valued. The Government recognises that recruitment should be skills-based yet there have been signals that it will continue to require chains to elect two parent trustees – a policy that was going to be dropped.

Reform’s report recommends the Government should not require academies to have parent trustees. No doubt there are many skilled parent governors but these skills are incidental to their position as parents. Whilst parental input into schools is highly necessary, governance is not the best conduit.

This brings us to the third issue: ensuring parental input. The high valuation of parenthood at a local level in Reform’s survey shows CEOs are concerned with this issue. We can already see an alternative role to governance for parents in the structures emerging in the bigger academy chains. Chains such as E-ACT and Oasis Community Learning have dissolved their local governing bodies and replaced them with advisory groups or academy councils. These bodies allow local interests (including the interests of parents) to be represented in an advisory rather than governing capacity. Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the NGA, suggests that the future of the role of local governing bodies may be more advisory than governing.

To safeguard parental engagement, Reform’s report recommends mechanisms such as those described above are ensured through the accountability system. Ofsted should place a greater focus on checking that academy chains have specific measures in place. If academies had a clearer method of engaging with parents, it would remove the need for the parental petitions the Government has proposed. The Government’s proposals would allow parents to petition the regional schools commissioner if they were concerned about how their children’s school was run.

In summary, Reform’s report recommends the Government abandons its proposal for parental petitions and gives academy chains the power to pay their governors and the right not to recruit parent governors. Parents’ views can be represented in other ways and there needs to be the accountability systems in place to ensure this is happening. These reforms are key to meeting the need for skilled governance.

Elaine Fischer, Research Assistant, Reform

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