Understanding the role of Trustees

From: Better Governor

Governance in academy trusts operates at a number of levels and for it to be effective it is crucial that Members, Trustees, and those involved in governance at local level in multi-academy trusts, all understand their role and responsibilities

In this article, the first of three that we will publish, over coming weeks, outlining the roles of Members, Trustees, and local governors, we are focussing on the role and responsibilities of Academy Trustees.

Because academy trusts are structured in a very specific way, as Charitable Companies Limited by Guarantee, governance at board level has three functions:

Trustees – because the Academy Trust is a charity,

Directors – because the trust is a company

Governors – because the academy/academies are schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) and the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) refer to us as Trustees and the 2021 Academy Trust Handbook follows this same line though in practice boards can, and do, refer to themselves using all three names. The key point is that it is not about what we refer to ourselves as, since we do wear all three hats, but it is crucial that we understand our role and responsibilities.

The role of trustees

Trustees are, due to the status of academies as charitable companies, must comply with Company Law, the charitable object of the trust, statutory regulations that are applicable to academies, and the contractual obligations that the trust has in under its Funding Agreement with the DfE.

Compliance is therefore a significant responsibility of trustees and boards should ensure that they have robust structures and procedures in place to assure them that they do comply with their statutory duties and responsibilities. An effective professional clerk is essential and whilst they do not sit on the board, they do provide essential advice and guidance to trustees and play a vital role in supporting the board to organise it’s work and ensure all aspects of compliance are addressed.

The governance function of trustees is the same as that of governors in maintained schools and has three core functions, as the DfE refers to them:

  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;
  • Holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the effective and efficient performance management of staff;
  • Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.

These core functions go beyond compliance and root the trustee role firmly within the realms of education and care. It is vital that Trustees do not lose site of the prime focus of schools, that of ensuring children and young people make progress in their learning and that they are safe, and their well-being is being promoted.

Trust Boards should never forget that they are the Governing Body for their trust and whilst schemes of delegation share tasks linked to responsibilities with those involved in governance in schools within the trust or with individuals, it is the Trust Board, the trustees collectively who are accountable and ultimately responsible. Trustees must ensure that they have effective strategic oversight of all aspects of the trust’s, and those schools within it, if it is a multi-academy trust, work.  Trustees need to have oversight of Teaching and Learning, Safeguarding, Health and Safety and all other aspects of the trust’s work if they are to be effective and discharge their duties effectively. In multi-academy trusts, this will include monitoring of key performance indicators for all schools within the trust.

In too many multi academy trusts, trustees do not always see themselves as governors and don’t always engage in training and professional development. It is crucial that they recognise all three roles and meet the expectations of them all. For governance of academy trusts to be truly effective Trustees should ensure their knowledge is up to date on all aspects of their role and this necessitates engagement in their own development.

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