28 February 2024

What it is like to be a trustee of a multi-academy trust

What is it like to be a trustee of a multi-academy trust?

This is a question I am asked a lot,  very often by those interested in supporting a MAT themselves by becoming involved in its governance but not sure what the role entails.

Trustees are there to ensure that the MAT operates in the best interests of its pupils, staff and communities. Key responsibilities include providing strategic leadership and governance; setting the strategic direction of the MAT; delivering oversight of financial management and compliance; prioritising the safeguarding and wellbeing of pupils and staff; fostering collaboration across the MAT and developing partnerships with external stakeholders; and championing continuous improvement and innovation in the MAT.

I became a trustee of one of the country’s largest MATs in 2016. I was delighted. For me, it was a real chance to ‘give something back’ to the education system at large. However, I also entered the role with a tangible sense of trepidation. Sure, I’d been a governor of my local school and worked in the commercial resources for the education industry for many years, so I knew a lot about schools and how they operated. But I felt I would be taking a real step up. Taking responsibility for a chain of 57 institutions looking after the education and wellbeing of over 33,000 young people was something not to be taken lightly! I felt that stepping into the role of a trustee was not simply assuming a position of authority. It was also going to be about taking on the responsibility to guide, nurture and empower the educational journey of a significant number of young people as well.

This responsibility came home to me in an even more profound way during the pandemic. My role as trustee and the importance of what this meant became even more heightened. Not only was it about being ‘on call’ at all times, as decisions had to be made about the MAT and its pupils quickly, sometimes unexpectedly and in line with government announcements (for example, signing off on the considerable spend required to provide all pupils in the MAT with a laptop for home learning for delivery almost overnight), it was also about engaging even more extensively than ever before with the community at large, including the NHS and social services.

Central to a trustee’s role is the cultivation of this sense of collaboration. Trustees are the ‘critical friends’ of the senior leadership team of the Trust. They are there to provide support, but also when required to give challenge. A key part of a trustee’s role is to hold academy leaders to account for standards in the MAT’s schools and for ensuring that all pupils are in the best position to thrive.

Of great importance, therefore, is an absolute commitment by trustees to driving educational excellence for the benefit of the pupils. Therefore being at one with the purpose and  ‘philosophy’ of the MAT, what it means for young people and the community, and how this purpose should manifest itself in the day-to-day running of the Trust and its delivery of teaching and learning is very important for a Trustee to know, understand and then to guide decision-making.

Trustees have significant and very specific duties written down in the constitution of the MAT. Generally, these would include to ensure that the Trust is being run for public benefit, to act in the Trust’s best interests, to manage the MAT’s resources responsibly, to act with care and skill, and to ensure accountability. The board of trustees then delegates responsibility for the day-to-day running of the MAT to the executive leadership team.

As a trustee, it is very important not to get involved in operational matters, as that’s the role of the executive. On a number of occasions I’ve had to check myself from becoming too involved, as that’s not a part of the role.

On the other hand, I do feel it is important for trustees to be visible. The role is more than just about turning up to board and sub-committee meetings (many of which are now online anyway). A trustee should be visible to the MAT’s beneficiaries ‘on the ground’ by getting out and about: meeting, listening, feeding back, playing an active role. I’m an absolute believer in the importance of engaging with the school community, and of listening to its ‘voice’ when it comes to developing strategic plans for school improvement that are really relevant to the MAT’s schools and the communities it serves.

When I’m asked if being a trustee of a MAT takes time, I always reply honestly that yes, it really does require proper commitment. As well as being on the main board, it is likely that a trustee will also be required to become a part of one or more sub-committees too. For example, MATs in which I am involved also have separate Finance, Audit & Risk, Safeguarding & Wellbeing, Education, and Nominations Committees. Time is required to read and thoroughly digest the contents of board and committee papers, and then become an active participant in the subsequent discussions during meetings. And as explained above, it is important to get out and about to visit the MAT’s schools, meet teachers and pupils, and engage with external stakeholders and the local community the MAT serves.

Being a trustee of a MAT is a significant responsibility and an incredibly rewarding experience. Trustees play a vital role in shaping and driving the strategic direction not only of the schools in the MAT, but also of state education generally. For those up for the challenge, becoming a trustee is a real and direct way to contribute to shaping the future of generations to come, at scale.

Andrew Thraves is a Trustee of the Academies Enterprise Trust, one of the largest MATs with schools all over the country; Chair-Designate of Big Education Trust, a small but growing MAT in London; and a Non-Executive Director of the Confederation of School Trusts Professional Development Ltd, the sector body which represents all Trusts. He is writing in a personal capacity.