The value of non-executive directors
Lord Agnew, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, writes for the Academy Ambassadors blog on the important support and challenge a non-executive director brings to a trust board.
In an autonomous school system where schools operate free from local authority control, strategic leadership, robust challenge, support and accountability are integral in securing both educational and financial performance.
The role of non-executive directors (NEDs) and Chair of the trust board is vital in setting the strategic direction of a trust. The board must ensure its schools are delivering the trust’s vision throughout the organisation, including in the classrooms.
Multi-academy trusts are in the business of education. As a NED you are able to bring broader expertise to the table which can be hugely beneficial to trust management. Most of you will already understand this role and the core principles of governance. What you might be less aware of is how your experience can have significant impact on the educational experience of every pupil within your trust.
NEDs bring corporate experience and skills from business that can be pivotal in strengthening academy governance. This supports all areas of trust management, including financial oversight, property management and HR.
You can provide advice and robust independent challenge to school leaders. You can help decide strategies for growth or consolidation ensuring that trusts are being run effectively and delivering value for money.
I have seen Chairs and chief executive officers (CEOs) increasingly recognising the importance of having independent expertise on their boards.
It is key for NEDs to understand how their skills can be applied to an educational context. An affordable and sustainable school improvement strategy requires a strong financial base. NEDs can help ensure their trust has appropriately skilled staff and effective systems in place to manage their income efficiently. This involves understanding the trust’s financial outlook and rigorous analysis of the assumptions that underpin budget planning.
Ensuring that the trust’s financial resources are correctly focused into teaching and learning can make the greatest difference. This requires sometimes asking challenging questions that some school leaders may not be used to. Your professional knowledge and skills can prove invaluable.
One powerful approach to planning is integrated curriculum and financial planning (ICFP). This is an education-led, data-informed approach to planning the deployment of teaching staff. It brings together budget considerations alongside what schools want to teach. Well used across a MAT, this can free up teachers’ time to teach and redirect resources back into the classroom. It is important for NEDs to establish whether their trust is using a variant of this model as it is the most effective way of bringing together sound financial management with the optimal allocation of teaching resource.
Watch the video on how curriculum planning can achieve greater financial efficiency with Sir Michael Wilkins of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust.
To give an example, the Pioneer Academy is a smaller primary MAT, based in South London and Kent. They use an analysis tool that allows them to cross-reference teaching resource across year groups and schools within their trust. Through it they identified a significant additional allocated to Year 6 teaching compared to Year 5. However, the relative progress of pupils between these year groups did not support this difference. They took a decision to redeploy staff in a more balanced way between these year groups. It worked, improving outcomes.
I have met with many people in the academies sector who have helped shape my thinking around governance. In particular, I am aware of the mentoring schemes that take place to match senior NEDs with newly appointed chairs. It is something I would encourage trusts to consider.
I was delighted to learn that Academy Ambassadors have recently announced the appointment of its 1,000th NED. This demonstrates the breadth of impact NEDs are already having across the country to spread the benefits of this external expertise. I am most grateful to all of you involved in this important work.
Lord Theodore Agnew, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education