Kirsty Watt and Gavin Robert: Lawyers are highly sought-after at multi-academy trusts
We recently welcomed Kirsty Watt from Academy Ambassadors and Gavin Robert, former Linklaters partner, to BCKR to discuss academy trusts and how lawyers make a good fit for their boards.
NED roles for BCKR members are being offered through Academy Ambassadors who came to speak to the group today, together with Gavin Robert – a BCKR member who found a NED role with England’s largest primary academy trust through the AA – BCKR relationship.
Lawyers are particularly sought after for the boards of multi-academy trusts for their ability to provide scrutiny and challenge. Academy Ambassadors provides a free, bespoke service matching business people and professionals with multi-academy trusts looking to strengthen their boards. Since 2013, the not-for-profit programme funded by the Department for Education has introduced over 900 business people and professionals to trust boards.
The NED role at an academy trust has impact and makes a significant contribution to improving education and life chances. As multi-academy trusts (MATs) grow and develop they face significant challenges and the skills and experience of lawyers can help these trusts and their pupils to succeed.
Academy Trusts have expanded massively over the last 5 years, which has not been without its own challenges. Academy Ambassadors came into the picture at the beginning of this expansion when it became obvious that these new organisations needed the backing of a strong board.
A school usually converts to an academy when the Department for Education asks for a school to be taken out of local authority control.
- If a school fails Ofsted inspection and goes into special measures.
- A school is doing well but wants to convert.
Is there ever hostility when a school decides to convert? It varies. Some parents are hostile to the idea. It is a question of doing the right thing for the locality. The need is for organisations that can raise standards in a short time and Academies have been successful in doing that.
The usual route to becoming an academy is either:
- A business sponsor taking over a school (usually a failing school)
- A strong head who is asked to get involved in other schools (which is the most common model) – with a structure where one corporate body oversees a number of schools.
Obviously, it can be a big leap from being a primary school teacher to becoming Chief Executive of an organisation with a budget of £10-200 million. Academy Ambassadors come in to help match people who want to make a contribution on a pro bono basis to support these teachers by joining multi academy trust boards.
The educational environment is stimulating and has plenty of governance challenges, in particular, a number of growing Academies need to establish an independent corporate body/central board to oversee the local school governing bodies.
Gavin was introduced to Academy Ambassadors following a BCKR breakfast and was interested in having a mixed portfolio which included the voluntary sector.
He joined REAch2, which is one of the largest primary multi academy trusts, with 58 schools. It is the largest primary-only academy and covers the UK up to the midlands. Reach4 and Reach South cover Yorkshire and the South Coast.
The challenge with primary school Academies is that they are made up of many more smaller schools. REAch2 has an income of £100 million and a staff of 4000.
It was established by Sir Steve Lancashire who developed a scalable system, with central services to keep pace with the rate of expansion. It is all funded through grants per pupil – though extra funding is received for converting a school to an academy. The board are not involved in any external fundraising. The bare facts are that increased occupancy equals more income. Academy schools all come from the state system.
Gavin’s first role for REAch2 was to join one of their Regional Boards. There are 4 regions with 15 schools in each region. There is also a central trust board. This is quite a governance-heavy model.
On the Regional Board Gavin stepped up to be Chair of the Education Committee. It was a fast learning curve, particularly learning to disseminate educational data. As a competition lawyer, Gavin didn’t feel particularly well versed in Corporate Governance. But the Committee consisted of two head teachers and one governor who were experienced in education which helped. The focus was mainly on strategy, direction and also risk and audit.
He later moved to the Trust Board where he became Deputy Chair. They formed a Rem Com and he sits on that too. The statutory accounts, which are published, are heavily scrutinised. Executive pay is a very hot topic as is gender pay gap. Education has the 2nd/3rd worst gender gap.
Now Gavin is also on a Governance Steering committee set up to examine the governance model, allowing greater power for the Regional Boards. He has found the regional board level to be very interesting – in particular, the detailed discussions about improving local schools.
The heads teachers report to the Regional Director who has a team of 4-5 assistant directors who go into help turn schools around.
What are the advantages of an Academy Trust role?
It is very clearly a NED role (not a governor role). Multi academy trust boards are definitely corporate roles.
Do schools in these large trusts still have local governing bodies? Yes – they are a mix of parent and non-parent trustees. They play a governing/supervisory role in relation to their individual schools, but they cannot, for example, hire or fire a head teacher. They tend to oversee the following areas:
- Disciplinary and performance issues
- Parent/staff surveys
- Holding the Head teacher to account
- Curriculum – the local offering to pupils
They are not involved in the strategy of the trust.
Resources are shared across schools – which is really the most valuable asset of the MATs. For example, a good leader from one school will share best practice in failing schools.
Financially, MAT boards focus on the reserves policy. Finance for the MATs is received through ‘top-slice’. Each school in the trust receives money directly on a per pupil basis and the trust will take a percentage off the top. The role of a trust includes:
- Educational performance
- Creating capacity
- Challenging schools on resources
- Top slice policy
If you are looking to take on a role what should you look for?
- Think about the nature of the challenge you want
- 5% of trusts are in a turn-around scenario
- A match has a lot to do with geography and time available. Anticipate 5-6 hours a month but realistically it will be 8 hours. Gavin does 4 days per term. Initially you need to get up to speed with a lot of jargon
- Your decision will most likely come down to how you think you will get on with the other members of the board.
Gavin has found it to be a manageable and very rewarding role. You learn an enormous amount from fellow trustees and it is a very good intro to NED roles.
If you are interested in pursuing a role with an Academy Trust, BCKR members can have a one-to-one conversation with an experienced adviser at Academy Ambassadors to help match them to a role. The locations where roles are currently available for lawyers are: Bexley, Leicestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Wolverhampton, Barnsley, Sheffield, Rotherham and Liverpool. However, further roles are coming on-line this month in London, the South-east, South-West as well as northern regions. By registering your interest now, you will be informed of these roles when they are available.