Sir David Carter rings in the new year detailing what trusts and business leaders can do to help one another in 2018 and beyond.
In December, the Department for Education published ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’, where Justine Greening, the former Secretary of State for Education, set out her ambition to create a more socially just society, and the role that education can play in achieving this. As schools return in the New Year, it is an excellent opportunity to reflect on how we can make this happen.
I believe a key way to achieve this is to ensure that good and effective governance is in place to support and develop confident, strategic leadership alongside robust accountability and oversight for educational performance. Many of our best leaders are proactively working within their governance structures to focus on and achieve a school-led approach to ensuring all children and young people can fulfil their potential.
My team of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSC) and I know that there are a lot of highly skilled trustees and governors that volunteer in academies, who undertake the really effective and challenging role of overseeing the business of their academy trust. Business leaders add significant value to a trust, through bringing their valuable experience and set of working skills to the role. We are keen to encourage more business leaders to join boards so that these benefits can be realised throughout the academies system.
Boards of trustees have a responsibility to understand the specific challenges in each of the academies they are accountable for; they should also understand what needs to be done to raise standards and to ensure that this happens. Trustees should question whether there is enough capacity to improve their schools and if not, to understand what plans there are in place to find it.
The most effective boards of trustees have strategic competence, capacity and the working relationships to hold CEOs and their teams to account for delivering improvements.
I know that this work can be challenging. It does, however, provide great satisfaction to those who undertake it and can provide those who volunteer an opportunity to develop and learn new things, to transfer back into their day job. The role on the board is firmly centred on strategic oversight rather than on the day-to-day running of the school, whilst it is not public facing it is a really valuable position.
RSCs therefore expect trusts to have a high-calibre board in place to provide independent scrutiny, support and challenge of CEOs. MAT Chairs are taking recruitment and succession planning to their board increasingly seriously, moving away from informal recruitment and ‘accidental’ board structures to rigorous recruitment, with skills audits and gap analysis.
To give a useful example, a larger-scale academy trust based in the South East has used external partners to improve its executive and governance functions, in order to build capacity as it grows in size. The Chair leads an ongoing self-evaluation process and recently commissioned an external governance review. Two years ago, the trust worked with Academy Ambassadors to recruit finance professionals to the board, appointing a former city Chief Financial Officer and Head of Operations from the banking sector. A rigorous external process allowed the trust to access a pool of experience unavailable to the trust had it acted alone, and also brought independence and rigour to candidate sourcing.
When recruiting to the board, the Chair made clear the senior-level strategic skills required for the role, alongside the level of challenge that new board members would face and would be required to provide. The new recruits were undaunted and entered the role with a clear understanding of both expectations and of the moral purpose of the trust: to work with academies facing significant challenge and with pupils starting life with significant disadvantage.
The CEO emphasised the need to build a board that can direct the strategic development of the trust in the same way that the CEO develops their senior operational team. Board refreshment is, however, a continual process and the trust is now building capacity ready for further expansion – not just recruiting when vacancies arise.
For those who do become trustees, we have updated extensive guidance so that they are aware of the exactly what is expected of them in their role. I am in no doubt that volunteering as a trustee is a big commitment and I want to thank those who make hugely important contributions to trusts as business leaders. From my experience, if this role is carried out effectively it will not only impact on your life and career, but it will also support trust governance and, therefore, work towards our mission of improving outcomes for pupils, particularly for those most vulnerable.