Skilled clerks and good governance are the bedrock that will lift the academies sector
Despite the gloomy headlines about unsustainable deficits and academy governance failures, the vast majority of trusts are very well run by trustees who understand, and believe in, their purpose to provide children and young people with the best possible education. They cannot do it alone, however, which is why having a good clerk or governance professional is vital.
By Maria Brookes, Media Relations Manager at ICSA: The Governance Institute and a parent governor of a maintained primary school in London
Sitting in a variety of sessions at the Schools & Academies Show in London, the one thing that struck me time and again was how thankful the speakers were of people’s efforts to ensure that children are given good life chances. Whether addressing teachers, governors or those working in another capacity within education, the message was always the same: the job that you are doing is immensely important and deserves more recognition. How strange, I thought, that people should be congratulated for doing something so intrinsic, but then I realised that actually it is important to celebrate the hard work that goes on, both behind the scenes and in the classroom. There is much to be celebrated.
For every school or multi-academy trust (MAT) that has attracted attention for the wrong reasons, there are many more that are doing excellent work that goes unreported. The academy sector is still young and continuing to mature so it is unsurprising that negative stories about off-rolling, related party transactions or teaching to the test surface. Education is ‘a complex organism’ as the Rt Hon Damian Hinds MP said in his opening keynote speech and it takes time for good governance practices to be implemented and bed in. Even then that’s not the end of the story. Governance is not static and it will continue to evolve as the sector, school and trust does.
There are now 738 MATs in England, which is a huge increase on the number that existed just a few years ago. With 50% of England’s state school pupils now educated in academies and the average trust having grown from 3.5 schools per trust two years ago to 5.6 schools now, there is currently even more pressure on MATs to get things right.
Governance, transparency and accountability are essential. They provide assurance to stakeholders that public funds are being spent appropriately, that the school or trust is well-led and well-run, and that students are being given the support they need to fully contribute to society.
Another speaker at last week’s event Steve Edmonds, Director of Advice and Guidance, National Governance Association (NGA) said that when school leaders and governors work well together they can genuinely achieve great things. As a governor myself this is great to hear, but I would add another person into the mix. When school leaders, governors and clerks work well together, they form a golden triangle, which is essential for effective boards.
Clerks play a crucial role in ensuring that schools and trusts are run in accordance with their aims and public benefit requirements, helping them to run legally, compliantly and ethically. Their knowledge and objectivity supports good board performance, whether that be by maintaining accurate records or preparing briefing papers for the governing body. They use their knowledge of the law and what is considered as good practice for effective governance to support and advise the governing board, thereby helping the board to deliver continuous improvement for pupils.
As Sir David Carter wrote in the foreword to the Clerking Competency Framework ‘Anyone who has experienced professional clerking will testify, it provides an invaluable contribution to the efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and compliance of the governing body.’ The growth of academy trusts and the introduction of the competency framework are changing the nature of what clerks contribute. Their remit now stretches beyond compliance and administration and they are playing a much more active role in helping to ensure that a school or MAT meets its objective to maximise the potential of pupils. By providing active support and advice to the board, something which is key for the delivery and development of good governance, the best clerks deserve to be recognised as governance professionals, which is why ICSA, as the professional body for governance, is working with partners such as the NGA to support the professionalisation of the clerking role.
ICSA accredits the NGA’s Leading Governance Development for Clerks programme, which seeks to professionalise the clerk’s role and raise the effectiveness of boards in all school and trust settings. ICSA itself provides a one-day Essential Academy Governance training course for trust secretaries, clerks, trustees and school leaders that provides insight into the governance of academy trusts and introduces the key building blocks for strong governance structures. For those who need a more in-depth understanding, we offer a Certificate in Academy Governance, which focuses on the governance of MATs and how solid and consistent governance and standards can be established across several schools.
As well as offering qualifications and training, ICSA also has a wealth of resources, from research and guidance to publications, which provide practical advice on how to develop, improve and embed good governance practices within the academies sector. This is crucial as academies are required to perform to the exacting standards expected of publicly-funded organisations, but with the additional moral compass of delivering the charitable purpose of education with the associated public benefit.
In a sector that is still developing and maturing in terms of success, sustainability and accountability, this can be challenging, but I witnessed a great number of people last week who are doing their very best to give children and young people the best possible start in life they can. Having a properly qualified clerk or governance professional to help is just one part of this story, but it is a key part and one that merits the recognition that it deserves.
About the author
Maria has held the role of Media Relations Manager at ICSA: The Governance Institute since 2013. In this role, she is responsible for working with the media to establish and safeguard ICSA’s reputation as the professional body for governance. ICSA has a Royal Charter to lead ‘effective governance and efficient administration of commerce, industry and public affairs’ and champions high standards of governance through its qualifications, guidance, support and influence with regulators and policy makers. ICSA has members in all sectors, including in education, an area that Maria is passionate about. Maria is a parent governor at a maintained primary school in north London and is doing her best to ensure that the children in the school’s care enjoy the best start in life that they can.