Governance matters

19 September 2016

'We should not underestimate just how vital the role of governors and trustees has become in helping to raise standards.'
Sir Michael Wilshaw, 2015 Annual Report

Although it is possible to take issue with Sir Michael on many matters, the above statement has never been more true, or more concerning in terms of some of the implications within the academy sector.

Going back to basics, the core principles expected of all charity trustees are that they:

  • act within their legal powers;
  • act in good faith;
  • act always, and only, in the best interests of the organisation;
  • ensure they have sufficient, relevant and reliable information on which to base decisions; and
  • are demonstrably open and transparent. 

These principles are not new, nor could they be regarded as controversial in any way. Adherence to them though requires a degree of altruism and self-awareness (individually and collectively) that sometimes seems to disappear. Whenever one reads a report about a ‘failure’ in an academy, a well known charity, an NHS Trust or a myriad of other sorts of organisations, a failure of ‘governance’ is often at the core of the problem, and in particular a failure of governors/trustees to hold management to account.

Accountability has been a mantra of Government over the last several years, and generally linked also to providing greater freedom to organisations to run themselves as they see fit – itself the core rationale underpinning the academy trust concept. The term accountability appeared 64 times in the academies White Paper earlier this year across a range of topics. It is also a core expectation of the National Schools Commissioner that academy trust boards hold ‘their’ management to account for delivery of the Trust’s mission.

So what does good governance actually look like? 

It isn’t all about policies, procedures and record keeping, as important as these are. It is though more about outcomes and behaviours – most Inspectors who have to opine on governance would say that they know good (and poor) governance when they see it, and those judgements are far easier to make when you observe trustees in actual committee and Board meetings.

The four core principles:

Knowledge
Having the right information on which to base decisions, whether organisation specific or more holistic. It also means recognising any shortfalls in that information and taking action to remedy that shortfall as far as realistically possible.

Thought
Application of knowledge in the strategic, and best, interests of the organisation, no matter what that might mean for an individual.

Leadership
Commitment to ensuring the delivery of the strategic objectives, which includes holding management to account for the operational delivery. In many of the reports of ‘failures’, this is often the weakest element of governance, particularly where there is a very strong Chief Executive in post who doesn’t accept (even if they understand) the role of a Board of Trustees.

Ethics
The Nolan principles of openness, transparency, selflessness etc.

This is by no means a guarantee of success, but if not in place, then more likely to lead to poor governance.

As alluded to earlier, it requires a great degree of self-awareness across a board to look at itself this way, and it can lead on occasion to (personally) painful recognition that some trustees should not be trustees. This is one of the key concerns of some of those working in the sector. As the number of academy trusts continues to grow rapidly, are there enough potential trustees ‘out there’ with the right skills and attributes who are willing and able to give sufficient of their time to make these academies a success? 

Request your copy of our charity governance 2020 report.

For more information, please contact Mike Cheetham or download the back to school PDF.