Aligning governance across a trust
Ask Matthew Parris how he thinks of Minster Trust for Education (MITRE), and one phrase springs to mind: ‘a family of schools’. But family dynamics can be complicated, and as CEO of the trust, Matthew knows this better than anyone.
On the one hand, the schools share a common vision in their commitment to providing the best possible education for the children in their care. On the other hand, all the schools that joined the trust initially were already rated good or outstanding, and arrived with a strong desire to maintain their autonomy. So, as the trust found its feet and started to flourish, there were bound to be a few teething troubles. The question was, as leader of the trust, how was Matthew going to deal with them.
Governance across the trust was one of Matthew’s biggest challenges. He takes up the story at the point where he realised he would have to change some of his thinking.
“I had made the incorrect assumption that the schools would already have effective governing bodies”, he says, “and would more readily make the transition to trust committees”. But the autonomy that the schools were so keen to preserve was creating difficulties, especially at the level of local governance.
At times, while all local governing bodies (LGBs) were fully committed to their schools, not all were performing effectively, and this could be for many reasons. Sometimes, they didn’t understand the nature of governance, or their role as committees of the trust board. They might make decisions outside their remit, or act without consulting trust leaders. They might have knowledge gaps regarding their legal obligations, or too much or too little involvement in the success and performance of the school. And there were instances when the governing bodies chose to follow local authority guidance and approaches, rather than those of the trust itself. In light of these challenges, as Matthew explains, “it has been important to change the thinking and narrative from ‘autonomy’ to ‘alignment’”.
The first step was identifying what needed to change. Matthew says that the top priority was to ensure the “development and communication of a clear and common purpose for the trust and its governance”. Once everyone was pulling in the same direction, the next challenge would be to identify how to support the most effective work at all tiers of governance throughout the trust. Matthew and his team realised that this would require responsive professional learning to address skills gaps, and the use of communication tools and portals tailored specifically for the needs of the Trust.
Communication across the trust would also be improved by the establishment of a lead governor network, where issues could be raised, best practice shared, and key messages communicated. With these improvements in place, Matthew explains, the aim would be to build “closer working relationships between tiers of governance, in particular between the trust board and the LGBs”. But how to bring about these changes?
Inspiration came in the form of the Ambition Institute’s Trust Leaders development programme. Thanks to seminars and conferences, Matthew was able to look to examples of good practice from across the country and apply them to his own Midlands-based trust. The Olympus Academy Trust showed him how to develop an effective scheme of delegation. Likewise, STEP Academy Trust provided a “no compromise” model for Matthew to consider, where unity is prioritised and support is built around a clear mission and vision. Matthew also made use of the Confederate of School Trusts’ (CST) Improvement Capacity Framework for Trust Governance, a self-assessment tool that sets out the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to be a governor or trustee.
So what does Matthew think has been the biggest achievements of this work? First of all, he says, “Trust leaders, school leaders and trustees have worked collaboratively to articulate a common mission for the trust, and this has been launched very successfully with local governing bodies”. Cooperation and communication lie at the heart of a MITRE education, where, according to the new mission statement, leaders, teachers, governors and pupils work together to “pursue excellence through partnership”.
At the same time, trust officers are working directly with governors across all the schools to establish clearly defined relationships and a better sense of what roles are required from everyone. Inevitably, there have been what Matthew describes as “challenging conversations”, but, as he is keen to emphasise, the changes implemented have allowed all parties to “build relationships, trust, and clarity of purpose and expectation”.
"Trust leaders, school leaders and trustees have worked collaboratively to articulate a common mission for the trust"
A professional learning programme for governors has also been established by the trust. This includes an induction programme for new governors, an annual training programme supported by the National Governance Association (NGA), and networking sessions where lead governors share best practice and receive updates from trust officers. At the same time, an online skills audit tool for governors has been introduced for completion each year. This is a work in progress: last year it was carried out by each local governing body autonomously, and they considered the outcomes themselves. This year, the data will be analysed centrally by the trust, and a report produced for each governing body to consider.
Finally, there is now an annual launch event for governors, school leaders and trust members. This means that each school year starts with a reminder of MITRE’s core purpose and ways of working, a welcome for new schools joining the trust, and the opportunity for questions and feedback. Matthew describes the first of these events as “very positive”. This was also where they launched a new initiative, the “trustee link”, where, as Matthew explains, each local governing body is assigned a trustee who visits the school, attends a LGB meeting, and is known by the school as a named link and port of call.
Matthew and his team haven’t finished yet. Their next steps include appointing a lead practitioner for governance and bringing clerking in-house as a trust service, so that clerks operate more closely in alignment with MITRE expectations across individual schools. But he has already seen the positive results of changes made so far. Everyone has a much clearer understanding of their individual roles and responsibilities. There is more support for decision making, stronger relationships between the trust Board and the LGBs, and improved communication in all directions. With well-designed, bespoke governance training in place, there is more commonality of purpose and more appreciation of trust-wide responsibilities. Most importantly, says Matthew, he can now see a clear “culture of togetherness and common purpose with developing respect and trust between tiers of governance and leadership”.
Whether it’s the family you’re born into or the family you find in the workplace, relationships are knitted together with strong communication, mutual trust, clarity of purpose and shared expectations. The effects of this can be transformative. As the mission statement of the MITRE family puts it: “together we help every child to flourish, opening doors to fulfilling futures”.
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