The Hallmarks of Good Governance in Academy Trusts – Part 2

This series of posts examines what good governance in academy trusts looks like and how boards can create a framework to deliver their core purpose and properly discharge their duties. In Part 1, we examined the importance of governance and the role of the Board of an academy trust. In this Part 2 we examine..

The framework for good governance in academy trusts

There are now a wide variety of structures used for academy trusts. All Academies are established as independent companies limited by guarantee with exempt charitable status. The following are the usual key players in the structure (see Figure 1):


Members are akin to the shareholders of the company. They have ultimate control over the academy trust, with the ability to appoint or dismiss some or all of the trustees and the right to amend the trust’s articles of association (subject to approval by the Secretary of State). Unfortunately, in many cases the members are often the same people who sit on the board as trustees. This weakens accountability since there is a danger of creating a self-serving oligarchy. Alive to this risk, the Department now recommends that there are at least 5 members, the majority of whom are not trustees. Employees of the trust cannot be members. In most current structures the role of the members is very muted. The members will meet perhaps once a year to approve the accounts and re-appoint auditors. A truly mature model would allow parents, and even pupils, to exercise the full rights of members. For example, the Cooperative Academy model articles provide for pupils, parents, staff, community and alumni to all become members. In theory, they could exercise their powers to dismiss individual directors, or the whole board. For more on the rights of members see here. The Trust must notify the EFA of the appointment of any new members within 14 days.


Persons appointed to sit on the board of the academy trust are both company directors and charity trustees. They are responsible for the operation of the trust. They set the strategic direction and are accountable for finance and academic standards. The trustees have duties under charity law to ensure that the academy complies with its governing document and the law, to take reasonable care that the trust is managed efficiently and effectively, and to ensure that resources are used appropriately and protected for the benefit of the charity. They have duties under Company Law to act in the best interests of the company, to avoid conflicts of interest and to perform their duties diligently, as well as wider duties under the general law for the management and safety of premises, safeguarding, data protection, non-discrimination and under employment law. They also have specific contractual duties to the Secretary of State under the Funding Agreement, such as providing information to the Department, providing places to pupils with SEN, providing free school meals and compliance with the Admissions Code, as well as adhering to the Academies Financial Handbook. Trusts must notify the EFA of the appointment of any new trustee within 14 days. The board may establish sub-committees to manage particular strands of its work, such as finance and risk, audit and internal controls, premises and nominations (recruitment & succession planning), curriculum and pastoral care.


Sometimes there may be one or more external sponsor, which could be another high-performing school, a charity, university, commercial organisation or faith organisation. The sponsor may have a right to appoint members and sometimes trustees, which gives them a degree of influence or control. Usually some form of agreement will be in place with the sponsor setting out the scope of their involvement and the terms on which they may receive start-up grant funding. The Department may insist on a ‘tripartite agreement’ which regulates the sponsor’s ability to charge for services only ‘at cost’.

Secretary of State

Despite the rhetoric about academies enjoying a high degree of autonomy, the Secretary of State (through the Education Funding Agency) enjoys very significant controls over academy trust’s freedom of action: firstly, through the Funding Agreement, which provides a wide range of contractual rights for the Department; and secondly, in its capacity as ‘principal regulator’ of an academy’s trust’s compliance with charity law (functions having been asssigned to her under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Charity Commission).

Local Governing Bodies

The role and powers of a local governing body depend on the precise local arrangements. A multi academy trust which runs several schools may devolve powers and functions to a local governing body based on ‘earned autonomy’ (i.e. better performing schools are able to take more decisions locally, whereas others may be purely ‘advisory bodies’). The details about precisely which functions have been delegated by the trust board should be contained in a clear Scheme of Delegation. Local governing bodies may operate as sub-committees of the Board. Key decisions on big ticket issues such as setting vision, policies, governance procedures, contracts and procurement, health and safety, HR matters, the budget and staffing structures usually sit with trustees at the trust board level. There is discretion over whether the local governing body should have any role in:

  • determining the individual school’s vision ethos and direction
  • recruitment of the Headteacher
  • performance management of Headteacher
  • delegated responsibility for the budget

The Local Governing Body may have delegated authority in relation to:

  • recruitment and performance management of staff, other than the local headteacher
  • monitoring of teaching standards
  • admissions and exclusions
  • Appeals Panels
  • term and holiday dates
  • reporting to parents

The trust board will usually reserve the right to suspend delegation and intervene in the event of falling standards or a serious risk to welfare of children.

Academies Governance Framework

The Department is now considering allowing trusts to either scrap local governing bodies or give them powers to oversee more than one school, with a less prescriptive requirement that the governance of each school should be ‘informed by local intelligence’. This should help remove possible confusion between accountability of local heads and managers to the overall CEO and executive management vs. accountability to local governing bodies. It is important to remember that, even where trustees have given delegated authority for certain functions to local governors or sub-committees, the trustee board as whole remain accountable and responsible for these functions. The ‘buck always stops’ with the board of trustees. It is important that the trust board receives written reports and minutes from sub-committees and local governing body meetings so they have ‘eyes and ears’ on what is happening across the organisation. As the academy trust grows to take in more schools, so the complexity and risk grows: systems and roles may need to evolve. Leaders need to be aware of the organisation’s capabilities and capacity to grow. DfE research (2015) has shown that the key pinch points usually occur when the grouping reaches 5 schools, 11 schools and then 20 schools.

You can read more detail about the governance arrangements and legal duties of trustees of an academy trust in our concise guide.

Getting the documentation right

The main documentation needed to set up the governance framework for an academy trust will include:

  • Articles of Association (largely in the form prescribed by the Department with little flexibility to change)
  • Funding Agreement(s) with Secretary of State
  • Tripartite Agreement with Sponsor and SoS, Letter of Grant, where applicable
  • Standing Orders & Financial Regulations, including Tendering and Procurement Policy
  • Schedule of Reserved Matters for the Board
  • Scheme of Delegation
  • Company Registers (Members, Directors, Secretary, Persons with Significant Control)
  • Minute Books
  • Board Code of Conduct
  • Statutory Policies (e.g. Charging, Behaviour, Sex Education, SEN, Data Protection, Complaints, Health & Safety)
  • Terms of Reference for Board Committees, such as Audit, Finance, Premises and Nominations.
  • Register of Business, Outside Interests & Family connections – which covers members, trustees, local governors and senior leadership team and must be published on the trust’s website
  • Conflicts of Interest Policy
  • Board Induction, Training and Evaluation Procedures
  • Vision, Mission and Values statement
  • Strategy Document (see more)
  • School Development Plan, including defined KPIs to monitor and measure progress, for example on pupil attainment, quality of teaching, pupil wellbeing, staff morale, effectiveness of communication, future aspirations of pupils.
  • (Balanced) Budget
  • Risk Register (see more)
  • Business Continuity Plan
  • Appropriate Insurance Covers
  • External auditor appointment letter (setting out their responsibilities)

As the trust grows, there will inevitably be a need for more sophisticated and standardised processes for governance and oversight, including systems for reporting and analysing performance data, financial planning and control, management, HR, teaching and learning methods.

Next time: we look at stewardship of finances and resources.

Mark Johnson is a highly experienced independent solicitor & chartered secretary supporting academy trusts, free schools & other education providers with their governance arrangements, legal and compliance matters. He is an independent member of a MAT audit committee. He offers a cost-effective governance review GovernanceCHECK360™ for academy trusts

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Trustees’ Duties in Academies & Free Schools

Trustees’ Duties in Academies & Free Schools

The landscape of schooling in England has been transformed over the last five years. Academy sponsorship has encouraged and facilitated the contribution of individuals not previously involved in education provision and laid down a challenge to maintained schools to improve or face replacement by the insurgent academy model’– Education Select Committee Report, January 2015.

Academy schools are independent semi-autonomous schools funded by the Government. At the time of writing, out of 21,500 schools in England, there are over 4,464 academy schools, made up of 2,385 primary schools and 2,079 secondary schools. The first academies were born out of the City Technology Colleges: schools outside of local authority control, introduced by the Conservative Government in 1988. The policy was continued by New Labour from 2000 under the ‘City Academy’ label. The momentum really began with the passage of the Coalition Government’s Academies Act in 2010, which paved the way for any school to convert to academy status, including secondary schools, primaries and special schools. The momentum continues under the new Conservative administration. Today, many academy schools are part of multi-academy trusts (federations or clusters of schools supported by a common sponsor). This brings economies of scale, can attract more teaching resources and enhanced funding opportunities.

Free schools are usually new schools formed as academy trusts. Whenever a local authority plans to establish a new school to meet demand for more school places, they must now run a competition and promoters of free schools (often parent-led groups) can put in a bid to establish a free school. This will be a completely new school, often in new or converted premises. There are now more than 400 free schools either open or approved. The new Government has said they will approve 500 more by 2020. Some private fee-paying schools have chosen to become free schools to ensure their continuing viability.

Further types of academies have developed over time, such as studio schools, university technology colleges (UTCs), and cooperative schools. Essentially, these are all variations on the same academy trust model, but with different sizes and a specialist curriculum.

An academy trust is a company limited by guarantee with charitable status. As a company, it has an independent legal identity, can enter into contracts, employ staff and be sued in its own name. It enjoys a fair degree of autonomy (within the constraints set by the Department of Education’s Funding Agreement and Financial Handbook), but the trade-off for this is more responsibility on the managers and trustees to run the school’s affairs prudently and professionally. As a company with ‘exempt charity’ status, the trust and its managers must also comply with duties laid down by company law and charity law.

Converting a school to an academy, setting up a new free school and running the new organisation once it is set up, bring a series of opportunities and challenges. Operating under these new arrangements can be quite a daunting experience at first. Following several recent scandals and press coverage there is now an increased focus on good governance and propriety controls in academies, in particular the need to avoid conflicts of interest and to ensure the proper stewardship of public money. It is important that academy promoters, managers, trustee directors and governors understand their responsibilities and duties.

Our particular interest is on leadership in relation to financial management and governance...We must respond to increasing calls for greater transparency. This means we must all be open about who is involved in the governance of our public bodies, including academies and free schools, and how they are run‘ – Peter Lauener, CEO, Education Funding Agency, Sept 2015’

Academies often point to the increased freedoms and financial resources that independence from local authority control brings. With those freedoms comes additional responsibility and accountability. Despite the label of being independent state-funded schools, academy trusts are in fact quite heavily regulated by means of the Funding Agreement with the Secretary of State, OFSTED inspection regime, the extensive accounting and reporting requirements, as well as by general company and charity law. These issues are not insurmountable, but they do require a watchful eye on governance and compliance tasks. Elderflower Legal has produced a new concise guide intended to provide an overview of the key points to be aware of, based on our extensive experience of acting as trusted advisor to academies and free schools.

Academy trusts should be required to appoint a part-time Company Secretary to ensure probity in decisions around the constitution and powers of Boards and governing bodies.” – Education Select Committee Report, September 2014.

As a trusted advisor to academies and free schools, Elderflower Legal can help guide you through the maze of regulation and compliance and help you to put in place effective governance arrangements which ensure the organisation fulfils its mission effectively, as well as providing reassurance to Board members and wider stakeholders that the academy trust is well-managed. Find out more about services for Academy trusts..

Download your free copy of our Concise Guide to Academies & Free Schools. Please feel free to get in touch to discuss any of the issues raised.

 Mark Johnson is an experienced solicitor and company secretary helping academy trusts, charities and social enterprises to manage risk, ensure good governance and protect their legal position.
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