Margaret Mountford gives BCKR the lowdown on Academy Schools
We were luckier than usual this week to have not one but two fantastic speakers on a subject that his been in the headlines a lot recently, Academy Schools. Margaret Mountford, an experienced Chair, and one time expert on the BBC’s Apprentice was joined by Academy Trust Chair Simon Staite. First, here is a quick look at the main points on Academy Schools.
The headlines on Academy Schools:
• They are independent schools – maintained by the state
• They are funded directly from government
• Having evolved from city education colleges under Blair they are now generally highly respected academically
• Numbers have grown from 203 Academies in 2010 to 6,000 in 2016-05-11
• One third of children is now in Academies
• With such significant rates of growth there has been enormous change management and the role of the board is now critical
• The role on the board is one of stewardship, strategy and performance
• The demand for people on boards is outstripping the supply and lawyers are much sort after in part because of their abilities to recognise and manage risk and do due diligence.
• There is a role to suit everyone – quarterly meetings of an individual local school trust, to monthly meetings of the national large players, from schools that are thriving and trusts that want to grow, to schools that need much more hands on turn-round experience.
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Margaret started as a governor of a maintained church school while still practicing law at HSF. She gave up the law in 1999, but alongside academic study and numerous other roles, continued at the school, eventually as Chairman of Governors.
Church schools have always had similar freedoms to those now enjoyed by Academy Schools, in particular they have the ability to set their own budget – although they have control over none of the income they can at least control 90% of their expenditure.
Under Margaret’s leadership, the school converted to an academy as an ‘outstanding’ school. At that time you got extra money from your local authority for converting early and you got a budget that you could control (as a company limited by guarantee).
Running an academy became very much like running a business – your products being the subjects you teach and the extra curricular activities you provide. So you need decent finance people and commercial expertise.
Margaret chaired the Academy for 11 years – drove through the conversion and a change of head teacher (probably the most important thing a school board will do).
The school considered whether to become a multi-academy trust, but concluded is could spread its good practice in other ways and instead, again at Margaret’s suggestion, went on to set up a free school for children with special needs in speech and language. This was an independent company – limited by guarantee.
• School heads are not necessarily good business people so they need their board to have people with business and legal experience. There is a huge amount of paper to work through and lawyers are eminently qualified to sift through this and find the pertinent pieces of information.
• The challenges all schools are facing now are ever decreasing budgets alongside increasing salaries. Head teachers need a ‘critical friend’ to discuss things with. Someone independent who they can bounce ideas off.
• You get so much out of it – even given how much effort you put in. Schools are very joyful places to be involved with. It is very refreshing to be surrounded by teachers who work so hard and who have so much enthusiasm and so many ideas.
Simon has been on his board for less than a year. Ambassadors contacted Simon for an interview and he was offered the role and attended his first board in October last year.
He attends 4 meeting per year with bits growing in between (He has now been asked to join the Rem & Personnel meeting). The meetings are held in London for the convenience despite being a multi-academy trust based in Cambridgeshire.
He has enjoyed the meetings because:
• There is an interesting combination of business and education.
• They do ask and and keen to hear your opinion (very different from client meetings).
• They have a slot for two headmasters to make a presentation at each quarterly meeting and the standards are fantastic.
• They like you to get involved, to visit the schools to see them in action
There is a lot of paper work but no different from partnership meetings.
Being on an Academy Trust board is a great stepping stone. He has already been contacted by another charity since taking on this role.
Is there a desire to grow into large groups?
At the moment multi academy trusts have 6-7 schools per hub. The institutional view is to move towards consolidation for financial efficiencies etc. These efficiencies are largely driven by total pupil numbers rather than numbers of schools – when you get to 1200 pupils you broadly have sufficient income to provide enough teaching staff
Four fifths of Academy Trusts still cover 6 schools or fewer.
At the moment the largest multi academy is 70 schools with a budget of £300 million but this is the only one this size.
The classic way that mergers came about was that outstanding schools chose to, or were prompted to, collaborate with other schools – 3 schools looking to become 6 or 6 looking to become 12.
Margaret’s school decided not to go on to become a multi academy. They wanted to make sure the free school maintained financial autonomy and did not want either school to be responsible for the liability of the other.
The danger is that multi academy trusts work well up to a certain size level i.e. failing schools can be successfully merged into successful schools, sharing practices, costs etc. but the risk is that when you are recruiting good head teachers you are only offering them the chance to head of a division rather than be top dog at a single school.
A good trust may well be able to bring underperforming schools up to ‘good’ but possibly not to ‘outstanding’ without a head teacher who is the one most responsible for the decisions. It’s a bit like being a subsidiary within a conglomerate.
Can academies transfer out of multi academies?
Yes – schools can move around. With free schools or academies like Margaret where they are not in a multi academy trust, the governing body of the individual school may choose to look to merge into a trust, or join forces with another school to create a multi academy trust. In multi academy trusts, transfers between trusts, removal from a particular trust or a decision for a school to go it alone will be the responsibility of the trustees of the trust. It is a dynamic landscape and as a board member you will be helping to make these types of decision.
Do you think lawyers have the right experience to be NEDs on multi academy trusts?
Lawyers are going to be welcomed by most boards at all levels. Whether is policy making, risk management, health and safety – you have the skill to see what matters and what is missing.
How do Ofsted inspections work for academies?
Ofsted are now inspecting large trusts as well as individual schools – looking at the board who are driving the schools.
If you are selected to be interviewed by them, the process is quite exacting and a big responsibility as you don’t want to let your school or trust down. Margaret found it one of the toughest things she’s done. They will go through the minutes of the governing body. This is where the Clerk of the governing body is a very important role.
There is a lot of support out there and though it can be challenging this is what most people are looking for in a role.
How do you gauge the time commitment?
Ask your interviewers how many times they have met in the last month and how long were the meetings.
Chairing is more a like a day a week.