How great governance can drive school improvement

Sept. 20, 2018
Nicola Cook

Nicola Cook

Head of Governor Services at the Buckinghamshire Learning Trust

One of the benefits of establishing or joining a multi-academy trust is that it provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at governance and develop new models.

Here at the Buckinghamshire Learning Trust, we provide training for schools on how better governance is a key driver for school improvement. We’re a social enterprise that works with 90% of schools and academies in Buckinghamshire, and we’re increasingly working nationally and internationally.

We’re finding that people are paying more attention than ever to governance and the crucial role it has in improving schools and educational outcomes. With the evolving MAT model, there’s even more awareness of how important it is. We’ve developed our expertise and bring a common sense approach to everything we do, ensuring it translates into practice in our training.

We’ve worked with hundreds of governing boards, and there isn’t much we haven’t seen. Here are our top four tips for using governance to drive school improvement:

1.  Streamline, then streamline again

We challenge school leaders to think about how governance can be a key driver of change as opposed to an area of development in isolation. We’re encouraging MATs to streamline, so as to avoid duplicating governance roles and instead delegate responsibilities depending on expertise. This will ultimately free up the valuable time of the SLT.

An example of this is giving the finance and policy roles to the trust board and using the school-level boards to advise on the local and specific contexts they are working in. This isn’t about devaluing the local role, it’s about everyone bringing their expertise to the table. We advise trusts against excessive lines of reporting, and to think about the needs of the children in the schools above protocols and processes. 

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2.  Understand what success looks like

To succeed as a growing MAT, consistency, simplicity and clarity within governance must be given priority. We recommend that leaders:

  • understand the needs, risks and opportunities of different governance structures; while we would all like to get it right from the start to avoid re-organisation in the mid-term it’s also important to know when change is needed to progress and sustain
  • recognise and actively pursue the characteristics of highly effective boards, both in education and wider business
  • ensure there is a rolling and effective MAT-wide self-evaluation process that works to not only assess and monitor but improve weaknesses and spread strengths

3.   Don’t be afraid to start again

Sometimes the easiest thing to do is start all over again. We see a lot of MATs that have ended up with a lack of clarity and lots of duplication – they’re up to their eyes in governance! When more schools join, it’s the ideal opportunity to refresh governance to make sure it’s both manageable and effective.  

4. Encourage debate

We’ve found that the best decisions aren’t always made when everyone agrees with one another. We advocate for rigorous debate, not harmony. Although many colleagues are uncomfortable with challenge, we think it’s the healthiest way to run a governance board.

 In ‘Conflict and Tension in the Boardroom 2017’, a report written by ICSA: The Governance Institute and Henley Business School, Professor Andrew Kakabadse describes how “tension and conflict are not only inevitable, but also play an essential part in effective boards. As one board member notes: ‘If everybody is thinking and behaving in exactly the same way, it’s utterly pointless’.” 

 One of our favourite quotes from a company secretary within the study is:

 "…in order to create energy, you need friction."  

In the ever-changing world of education, the relationship between governors and leaders is a vital component of sustainable governance. We will certainly continue to provide advice and support around through our nationally available training and governance support services.


Buckinghamshire Learning Trust present sessions at our Executive Educators: Building and Leading a Sustainable MAT, which focuses on the behaviours and mindset of a leader and provides the core technical skills to build a sustainable trust. 

If you would like more information about our executive leadership offer, please fill out this enquiry form and a member of our school partnerships team will get in touch.


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.


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