A decade of academy trusts: is it time to move to democratically elected governance?

Michael Pain’s Summer blog 2020.

I am a believer in the potential of the academy trust system. I believe it gives expert educationalists who know their pupils, schools and their communities greater agency to lead and to shape provision – including the curriculum and resources required in a changing world. Where the model works well, it takes education one step away further from political and bureaucratic interference that has swamped the system for so long. It deepens the sense of professional leadership. We see people who have devoted their lives to education and succeeded as educational leaders being given the opportunity to lead at a greater scale, having an influence on more pupils and communities. That’s a positive thing.

However, there are some regrets after a decade of academy trusts. First, some trusts and their leaders have failed to seize the opportunity to think differently. Whilst some trustees, CEOs and executive leaders use their professional wisdom and deep connection to the community to innovate and enhance the curriculum and educational experience, others still equate running a successful trust with impressing ministers and playing a ‘scores on the doors’ numbers game which leaves some children lost. The latter is a more managerialist approach that reflects the lack of quality (though certainly not quantity) of executive leadership development programmes in the sector. Another, more profound regret, is that we have lost a democratic accountability, or should I say, an opportunity to enhance democratic accountability, to communities. LAs aren’t perfect, and the accountability of some education bureaucrats to the public is less pure than we would be led to believe, but they can still boast a structural commitment to democracy in a way that trusts cannot. As a model, putting aside the efforts of those trusts and leaders who have opened themselves up to community-focused accountability, it is too far removed from people.

In recent years the #TrustLeaders network has advocated doing more to ensure trusts become more accountable to their communities. This is not just simply because democracy is seen as a good in itself, but because leadership and management theory and practice across sectors tells us that accountability to those we serve on the frontline is central to creating better, more adaptable organisations. I am encouraged by those forward thinking trusts who shun the obsession with government targets or the notion that they know better than their communities, to instead open themselves up, publicly, to what I describe as more pure accountability – through pupil and parent surveys, staff surveys, and wider objective indicators of satisfaction beyond government indicators. There are some excellent examples, and these draw on everything we know about successful organisations – they put the people they serve first, not a bureaucratic league table or an inspector, just like every great organisation in history.

See highlights of the national #TrustLeaders conference 2019; Academy Trusts at the Heart of their Communities: National #TrustLeaders Conference 2019

However, I’m increasingly convinced we need to do more not just to elevate community-focused accountability in the academy trust sector, but to go further, and to achieve more democratic governance in trusts. Trustees are powerful people. What they measure gets done, and whilst some are forward thinking and value championing and serving the community first and foremost – looking outwards, others are still very limited in knowing how to shape a community-focused organisation and predominantly look upwards (or worse still to the executives they should hold to account) for direction and priorities. We also need to get much better at ensuring that trust boards and trust governance is genuinely more diverse and reflective of the communities we serve (in terms of ethnicity, gender and age). Our organisations will only be more diverse and representative if we begin with governance and the people in control. By opening up access to governance in this way and empowering communities to elect trustees, we immediately create more conducive conditions to achieve greater diversity and better representation. 

So, the debate I am encouraging is this: is it time that we sought a new way of appointing trustees – democratically – and to place a renewed onus on trusts as organisations that serve people and communities? Rather than an opaque situation where trustees are appointed by members, should we instead be considering whether trustees should be elected by parents and key community stakeholders, every three or four years? This would really focus the minds of Trustees on listening to and prioritising the needs and expectations of communities, as well as ensuring trustees had to give serious thought to the purpose of the trust and it’s direction in making the case to their ‘electorate’.  It would move the academy trust system away from the perception of being an opaque, boys club (which it largely isn’t), to one that is about community service, representation and accountability. It would do even more to place academy trusts at the heart of their communities, giving community members great agency in the direction and development of trusts.

On Pure Accountability: PURE ACCOUNTABILITY: An accountability vacuum? Let’s shape a purer, more community-focused alternative.

In this new world, trust Members could provide a nominating role – perhaps taking on the role of advertising posts, undertaking the initial sift of candidates based on skill sets and experience, and then overseeing the democratic election process itself. They could also be the guardians of the trust and, as we have advocated before, should sign a charter that reflects the Nolan principles and fiduciary duties to the trust. I like the NGA’s idea that members should be made up of a group of community representatives (though they could not be serving members of staff, this would create conflict). Perhaps we should seek to appoint former headteachers or former trust pupils as members? What I would say is that members would not have the power to appoint trustees, though they would have the power to nominate them and hold them to account against the Nolan principles. 

We have now reached the end of a decade of mistakes, development and evolution in this brand new system. It’s time for a new leap forward that takes this system to another level of sophistication, openness and representation of communities. This proposal for elected trust governance is a big suggestion, however we have been lacking in some good ideas around academy trust governance for some time now. The proposal provides a potential solution to some of the deep rooted challenges and criticisms of academy trusts. It’s not perfect, and requires serious debate and, of course, refinement. It would be a change that would require political support, and I urge politicians to consider whether now is the time to give the academy trust system ‘democratic autonomy’ it deserves. Let’s start the conversation, let’s think outside the box. 

Michael Pain is the founder of Forum Strategy and author of Being The CEO (John Catt, 2019)


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