Why effective, accountable and ethical governance is essential

If there is a single part of our emerging education system that needs our urgent attention, it is governance.

There is still much that is misunderstood about the differences between governing a local authority maintained school, governing a single academy trust and governing a multi-academy trust. The governing bodies of local authority maintained schools do not have the same legal and financial responsibilities as that of a single academy or multi-academy trust board. It is crucial that this is well understood.

In addition to the duties of a school governor, the trustees of an academy or multi-academy trust are directors under company law and trustees under charity law. These responsibilities are weighty and significant. As a minimum, trustees should have a firm grasp of the Charity Commission guidance, The Essential Trustee. This guidance sets out in a simple and accessible way what you need to know, and what you need to do as a trustee.

Of course, academies and multi-academy trusts are first and foremost charities – in other words, their sole purpose is to advance education for the public benefit. The income and property of the Trust must be applied solely towards this purpose – to advance education for the public benefit. Trustees must comply with the trust’s charitable purpose and with charity law.

The Trust is also the employer of staff and the holder of land titles. The level of responsibility of a trustee is therefore significantly greater than the governor of a maintained school, and the requirement for the Trust board to have the knowledge and skills to lead the organisation is correspondingly greater.

This becomes even more complicated for multi-academy trusts where the trustees are leading a complex organisation with a number of schools. The level of knowledge, skill and experience is therefore greater even than the requirements on a single academy trust.

Recently, we have seen some high profile failures of governance reported in the media. These often relate to lack of financial oversight, a culture of secrecy and lack of transparency. A failure of governance translates into a failure of a Trust to be able to support its schools.

But ultimately failures of governance are a failure of the trust we hold with children and young people. There is no greater public service, in my view, than the investment we make in the future through the education and care of our children and young people.

Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” When we accept the role of governor and trustee, we assume the mantle of responsibility for the future chances of our children and young people. When we act irresponsibly or worse, negligently, we fail children. This ultimately, is why we must take governance seriously.

Leora Cruddas is Chief Executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST). She tweets @LeoraCruddas.

CST is one of the organisations in receipt of a DfE contract to provide a Governance Leadership Programme.  See here for more information.