I am a doctoral student undertaking research around school governance, particularly in relation to multi academy trusts (MAT). My current research project is looking at the volunteers in the English education system that sit on, what is termed, a local governing body (LGB). Some MATs call these ‘academy councils’ or academy committees’, as examples. Please see the post, “Who volunteers and why?“. Local authority maintained schools (eg community schools) have governing bodies that operate as a legal entity. When a school joins a multi academy trust (either by converting, or being sponsored), their legal entity ceases to exist and the school (now academy) is governed by the trust board of the MAT. In my experience (being situated in a MAT) there is confusion on the part of the LGB as to their role, described by Vinall (2022) as like “puppets on a string”. I give a brief background to academies below, and frame my position.
In 2000, New Labour launched the city academies programme which was designed to provide underperforming and failing schools with “radical and innovative challenges to tackling educational disadvantage” (Department for Education and Skills, 2005, p. 29). In 2002, an education act renamed city academies as academies, with the first three academies opening in 2002. By March 2010, there were 203 academies in 83 local authorities.
The Academies Act 2010 gave all state schools in England the option to be independent of the local authority and to become academies. Academies receive their funding from the Department for Education (DfE) via the Education and Skills Funding Agency, rather than through the local authority, and are run by an academy trust. As of December 2021 there were 9,804 open academies, representing 45.4% of all state funded schools. Academy trusts may run a single academy or a group of academies within a MAT and are not-for-profit companies (a charity and company limited by guarantee).
A recently launched government white paper (March 2022) has proposed “a fully trust led system with a single regulatory approach” (Department for Education, 2022, p. 10). The aim is that “by 2030, all children will benefit from being taught in a family of schools, with their school in a strong multi academy trust or with plans to join or form one” (ibid., p.43), signalling the move that governing bodies of all local authority maintained schools should now be considering their future.
A MAT has delegated authority from the DfE through legislation and the academy trust’s funding agreement, and through both charity and company law. The MAT has members (trusts are founded by members who have a duty to exercise their powers and to further the trust’s charitable purpose), and a trust board (the decision-making body, both accountable and responsible for the academies in the trust).
It is not straightforward to describe how a multi academy trust operates and the roles and responsibilities of both executive and non-executive leaders, including those that govern a MAT and its academies. Model articles of association from DfE have changed over time, and therefore MATs operate under different articles. In the most recent model articles of association, it is still a decision by the trustees of a MAT whether to appoint local governing bodies. The government’s white paper (March 2022) admits that “the system that has evolved over the past decade is messy and often confusing” (Department for Education, 2022, p. 46).
Since the introduction of city academies, and now the ability for all schools to be administratively self-governing, the role of the school governor has significantly changed; those that govern our schools now have a legal responsibility to hold senior leaders to account for the financial and educational performance of the school. In the case of a MAT, this sits with trustees.
The stakeholder model in relation to school governing bodies has existed in English schools since the 1980s. Trustees in a MAT (the trust board) tend to be appointed based on their skills, usually relating to their profession or qualifications (Connolly, Farrell and James, 2017). This potentially creates a disconnect between the trust board and its academies, particularly, I would argue, in larger MATs. Allen and Gann (2022) argue that there is a democratic deficit with a lack of stakeholder engagement governance in academies and that it is “a system that frequently leads to failings of accountability” (Allen and Gann, 2022, p. 11).
Therefore, I contend that having local governing bodies is necessary in order to ensure community and stakeholder representation. But how can we ensure democracy at that level?
Allen, A. and Gann, N. (2022). ‘The architecture of school governance: Rebuilding democratic legitimacy within an academized system’. Management in Education, 36 (1), pp. 11–17. doi: 10.1177/08920206211068132.
Connolly, M., Farrell, C. and James, C. (2017). ‘An analysis of the stakeholder model of public boards and the case of school governing bodies in England and Wales’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45 (1), pp. 5–19. doi: 10.1177/1741143215607879.
Department for Education and Skills. (2005). Higher standards, better schools for all: More choice for parents and pupils. White paper CM 6677. London: TSO, p. 116.
Department for Education. (2022). Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child. White paper CP 650. London: HMSO. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/opportunity-for-all-strong-schools-with-great-teachers-for-your-child (Accessed: 31 March 2022).
Vinall, C. (2022). ‘Like a puppet on a string … exploring headteachers’ perceived demise of local governing bodies within an English multi-academy trust’. Management in Education, 36 (1), pp. 25–33. doi: 10.1177/08920206211051474.