Why Lawyers Looking for NED Roles Should Get Back to School with Academy Trusts
Ever considered becoming a school governor? Or helping to run a large group of schools? This week we welcomed back Kirsty Watt, who runs Academy Ambassadors Forum, part of the government sponsored New Schools Network. One of the main aims of the forum is to find suitable candidates for the boards of Academy Trusts and they are always on the look-out for lawyers interested in working with academy schools.
Here is a summary of what Kirsty shared with us…
Four years ago there were 400 academy schools nationwide which had mainly been either failing schools or single outstanding schools converting into academies.
Today there are 5,000 academies educating 60% of the country’s children.
Broadly there is political consensus around this move towards academy chains. The trends driving this movement are that:
• Schools are still funded by state but have:
• Independent Schools regulation
• more freedom to run affairs
• greater flexibility for Curriculum
• direct budgetary control
There becomes a need for a board that can handle the increased levels of responsibility and accountability.
A typical board will be made up of 8-10 people from local business or people with educational experience.
There is a growth towards chains of schools. They usually have the resources and ability to transform failing schools rapidly.
Behind these are small groups of schools (not dissimilar to ‘cottage industries’) that might be formed when failing schools get passed on to a school with an outstanding local head to look after.
Once you get a group of 3 schools or more the world starts to look very different. When you get a group of schools between 6-10 they become viable medium-sized organisations with large budgets. It is at this critical growth stage that New Schools Network tends to come on board.
Overseeing large groups of schools requires an independent board with a degree of scrutiny. Lawyers are perfectly suited for this role.
The large chains of schools such as AET are groups of as much as 20 schools with budgets typically of £200 million.
That trajectory will change in the next few years. Before, schools that were failing would be given a sponsor. In the future more schools will be eligible for intervention if they are labelled as a school in need of improvement and don’t have a plan to do so.
The requirement for NEDs will be greater in future. This is driven by the impact of
• Financial management
The NED roles
The average commitment for a board member is around 4 hours per month to begin with. Academy Ambassadors work one to one with interested people to match them to a suitable Trust.
There are usually a couple of meetings a term. You would start at a NED/Trustee without portfolio, usually for a group of schools.
Sometimes people go straight in as Chair and sometimes you will be asked to take on additional roles.
The typical focus of the NED role is to ask the difficult question about the 3-5 year plan – whether it is about personnel, the improvement plan or the financial plan. You are expected to get involved – but as a ‘well qualified amateur’.
Meetings will usually take place in the early evening though some have less frequent, planned full day meetings. Last minute meetings are quite uncommon. You may be required to visit the school occasionally between scheduled meetings.
Obviously you will need to read the board papers, look at the data and performance plans in advance. Performance statistics are readily available and easy to master.
Always be sure to ask the school what cover is in place for directors
Is there a policy to get most schools into these large chains of 20 or more schools?
The chains probably grew too big too fast. The scrutiny was lower at the beginning. They still don’t really know what is the optimal size, but 70 is almost certainly too large! Now the levels of scrutiny on the sponsors is much higher. They get capped if they appear not to have the capability to improve their existing schools. The culture has changed with an emphasis being more on quality than quantity.
A group of 10 schools will usually have a ‘parent’ council or representative body or a local governing body. The accountability is held at the trust board level. For regional boards, operating across 3 schools – performance is managed through the executive line.
What is the rational for putting schools together?
It is usually financially driven. You can create central funding to improve schools. 3% of 3 schools versus 3% of 6 schools gives you more money to spend on, for instance, a specialist teacher in language, physics or perhaps dyslexia. It allows for greater collaboration between schools. It encourages Team teaching, increasing the opportunity for mentoring teachers.
Teachers can travel between schools which in turn gives more career opportunities for successful teachers. Academies then attract better teachers. There is a trend toward clusters of schools now over a few regions. When you have clusters of schools, collaboration starts to work. Ultimately everyone involved will get more involved.
Schools are desperate for greater contact with the business world, especially outside London. Some areas of particular need are:
• Kent (including Rochester)
Roles outside London are sometimes suitable for people with connections outside London, i.e.:
• Family connections
• Second homes
How much does the board scrutinize what is going on at school level?
It is important to check the structure. The best way to do that is to run a scenario to see if the systems are in place to cope with issues such as:
• An instance of extremism
• Child protection
When discussing a role, be sure to ask about issues like:
• the capacity for growth
• how does the top board manage conflicting priorities?
• what is the moral mission of the schools?
What is the typical composition of a board?
• Executive non-voting members
• CFO – to present financial reports and budgets
• someone with experience of examinations
• a couple of people from the business community
• independent educational experts
• somebody connected with the local authority
• ideally, people with some experience of safeguarding, of extremism and of pupil special needs
• Legal expertise
• HR experience (for tribunals and appeals)
• Representatives from the local diocese (if it is a church school)
Who verifies the technical data?
• In Primary schools is it externally assessed i.e. through SATS results
• Secondary – via the Education Funding Agency
However, Trusts will occasionally bring in external validators to check. There is always an independent audit of the financial statements
Academy Ambassadors are a one to one match making organisation. They find out what gets you out of bed in the morning and match schools to your particular needs. Though they don’t provide training the do provide mentoring.