Find out more about our nine characteristics of effective trust boards, here: The 9 characteristics of effective trust boards
As multi-academy trusts have evolved and developed over the last few years, one thing has become abundantly clear: the quality of a MAT’s board of trustees is fundamental to success. Indeed, the importance of effective governance was made plain in the DfE’s recent ‘growth guidance’ for MATs, which urged trusts to: “Get governance right from the outset. Recruit trustees for their skills and then ensure that they govern in the best interests of the MAT as one organisation.”
This is a task (and a challenge) that cannot be understated. For smaller MATs (and particularly those operating outside of London and other major cities) accessing individuals with both the necessary expertise and the time and inclination to undertake what is a demanding, highly accountable, voluntary role is a major ask. Indeed, when we recently asked members of our East Midlands’ MAT CEO network (delivered in partnership with Inspiring Leaders) what their biggest challenge was in terms of organisational development, most told us that it was building an effective trust board with the necessary skills and experience to provide sufficient support and challenge.
A key issue that many new and smaller MATs face is the transition that their governing board members must make from governing body to board of trustees. For some, the issue is around getting governors to change their mindset from being responsible for an individual school to being responsible for a group of schools in the round. As the DfE guidance says, they must ‘govern in the best interests of the MAT as one organisation.’ In other cases, the issues lie more around the skills sets of existing trustees and whether they have the expertise to be able to provide the necessary support and challenge to what is essentially a medium-sized public sector organisation. In many cases, many longstanding governors simply do not have the skills or the inclination to step up to the role of trustee in this context.
Paul Stone, CEO of the Discovery Schools Trust has experienced this transition first hand – having originally been the headteacher at Kibworth Primary School and now leading a multi-academy trust of thirteen schools. “When we made the transition to becoming a MAT” says Paul “we began by undertaking a skills-audit of our trust board and we quickly realised that we were lacking expertise in a number of key areas. A skills-audit was an important place to start – it was objective, evidence-based, and encouraged a degree of self-assessment. With the support of our Members – who are ultimately responsible for appointing trustees to the trust board – we decided to start from scratch and we undertook a selection process in order to reconstitute the board.”
Selection is an important word. Governing bodies are traditionally composed through election and co-option – and are based on a strong ethos of representation. For trust boards, there is a much greater need to focus on professional skills and expertise. “All members of our original governing board – the initial board of trustees as it were – each had to reapply as part of the selection process.” says Paul. “We were starting with a clean slate and it was clear that whilst some had the experience, expertise and mindset that we needed to successfully operate at the trust board level, others were not suited to the role.” In some cases that was a mindset issue, with some governors wishing to remain in a local role as part of what is our equivalent of the local governing body – which is now known within the trust as ‘the academy forum.’ A solution to this was found through the requirement that colleagues made a choice – it became trust policy that those serving on a local governing body could not become a trustee and vice-versa.
In reconstituting the board, it became clear to Paul that there was more for the trust to do in the way of recruiting people with expertise in areas such as HR and corporate leadership. Recruitment – as already mentioned – is a challenge for MATs and Paul’s advice is to draw upon the relationships you already have – whether that’s with local businesses, former colleagues or through parents and staff – to reach potential recruits. “For me” says Paul “the most important appointment was that of our Chair – David Williams. David was someone I knew through a friend and I was aware he had retired after leading a number of schools and being a National Leader of Education. So I asked for the introduction and thankfully he was interested!” Another key relationship has been that with Santander Bank, an organisation with which Discovery have a long standing relationship with through their schools/business partnership programme. Paul spoke to Santander about how they could promote Discovery’s work and the opportunity to be part of the trust – and again, the trust was able to make links with some very experienced professionals.
Discovery’s Chair, David Williams, believes that MATs not only need to make the right connections, but also need to engage potential trustees in ‘a dream’ for the organisation’s future and – through that – the trust’s aspirations for children’s futures. “We want people who are aligned with our values and who are very motivated to make a difference. We also recognise that this is a voluntary role, so we need to engage people with the bigger picture and how they can be agents of change through the trustee role. We need and want them to believe that this is a place where you can make a difference and that shines through all our materials and publications.” Another important way in which the trust has engaged parents, business and others has been through its annual awards event – which allows the trust to showcase its work and the difference it is making to the lives and life chances of children. “You have all those people in the same room, and they see for themselves what impact the trust is having on young lives. You can’t help but be inspired and – ultimately – we do need to inspire great people to serve as trustees” says David.
It is worth adding that recruitment is an ongoing process and that trusts must begin to plan early in forging a trust board that will remain strong and ‘fit for purpose’ as the trust grows. The DfE guidance recommends that a trust’s “governance model needs to reflect not just the MAT you are when you are established, but also the MAT you want to become in the future.” This is partly about recruiting people who have the skills and experience to ably govern the trust through its growth and evolution, but it is also about succession planning. As David, Paul and others at the Discovery trust realise, it is essential that the trust board remains focused on engaging and involving those who could potentially fill the shoes of current trustees when they eventually move on.
Some hints and tips for reforming and recruiting to your trust board:
- Get the backing and leadership of members from the outset. It is they who have ultimate responsibility for selecting and appointing trustees. They must be involved and briefed on the process and make the ultimate decisions;
- Have a strategy for trustee recruitment, don’t just muddle through! Anticipate vacancies, prepare and refine your message to potential recruits, consider your methods of engagement, and invest in high quality marketing materials that showcase the organisation as ‘a place to be’. It’ll be worth the investment of time and money;
- Engage trustees in regular skills-audits, building in time for individual, peer to peer, and group reflection. Create a respectful, yet honest forum in which strengths and weaknesses are carefully considered as this is in the interests of your schools and children! Commission an external review of governance if you need an independent, objective perspective: Forum Strategy Brochure – Sept 2018;
- Recognise and overcome the fact that some people wish to serve one school rather than a trust of schools. A key strategy is to introduce a policy where members of LGBs can’t serve on the trust board (and vice-versa);
- Reinforce that trustees must serve the whole trust. The STEP Academy trust has used its ‘Step Compass’ as a useful tool to focus trustees’ minds and thinking on governing in the interests of the whole trust: http://www.stepacademytrust.org/about-us/our-journey/
- Ensure that recruitment to your trust board is based on a deep understanding of the skills, expertise and knowledge required. Use tools such as the new Competency Framework for Governance (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/583733/Competency_framework_for_governance_.pdf ) and consider how recruits perform against our own, refined, competency areas;
- Ensure recruitment to the trust board is undertaken through a rigorous and carefully planned selection process. Resist – as far as possible – in creating a board that is formed through the need for representation. This is about merit and experience!;
- Draw on your existing contacts and networks – through local businesses, colleagues, parents and existing board members – to reach potential recruits. Share, for example, a simple, engaging and inspiring flyer about your trust, which can act as a useful means of sharing information;
- Ensure that you have crystalised a clear, ambitious and inspiring vision for your trust – which relates to all stakeholders, including trustees. Recruiting good people is ultimately about tapping into people’s ‘why’ or sense of purpose and providing them with a means to bring that to life.
- Provide opportunities for potential trustees to ‘experience’ your organisation and engage with it. Awards evenings sponsored by local businesses, opportunities to provide coaching and mentoring to staff, or ‘good news’ stories in the local press can help to raise your profile and publicise the opportunities to become involved as a trustee;
- Have a succession planning strategy. Whilst it is important for a board to not become too big or cumbersome – sometimes it can be OK to ‘double-up’ on expertise on the board, particularly where one individual is planning to move on soon. In other cases, look to place high-potential future trustees on local governing bodies so that they are well placed to step up when the opportunity arises;
- Be ready to say no! The quality of an organisation can only be as high as the quality of its people – that includes trustees. Don’t recruit if you are unsure. The organisation’s success fundamentally depends on the highest standards of governance.;
For more information on Forum Strategy’s training for and external reviews of trust boards, please visit: The 9 characteristics of effective trust boards
“Forum Education enabled our trust to review its progress and inform future planning. The quality of the information and presentation provided was excellent and mades things clear and easily able to be understood.
Forum Education provided exactly what was required as our MAT reached a critical time in its development. As a board of trustees, we have been able to make clear decisions for our future direction and Forum provided us with a positive starting point.
Forum goes the extra step to ensure everyone involved feels able to contribute to discussion and feel included in the process being reviewed and future planning.
I would unreservedly recommend them to schools to facilitate accurate assessment of their present position and what is required for future planning.”
Pam Burton Chair Trustees, Brighter Futures MAT, 2017