In 2020, the government released their schools’ white paper, Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child. This outlined the drive for all schools to join a multi-academy trust (MAT), or have plans to do so, by 2030.

The conversation has been prevalent across schools, leadership teams, and boards nationally. With the emergence of large MATs with turnovers exceeding £30 million, we begin to see the landscape of our sector changing. I have spoken to several sector leaders since my move into the sector from Further Education, who have generously given their thoughts on how the schools sector is shifting.

As times change, so must we.

Whatever your view on the move towards a ‘MAT-only’ system, governing board agendas will be shaped by these policy plans for years to come. There are over 1400 MATs in England; Schools Week suggests that already, 45% of schools are part of the MAT landscape. And now, regardless of whether it is the small board of a school single school turning over £500,000 or the board of a £MM, 20-plus school MAT, the non-executive body needs to include a range of skillsets, perspectives, and ideas to be able to operate successfully.

Where are the innovators, challengers and strategists?

Board recruitment remains a key challenge across education. I’ve had conversations where executive leaders have expressed wanting to be held more accountable by their board.

In a recent meeting, a small school with ambitious plans was “lacking the strategists, the challengers, and the innovators” to lead them through the conception of their new strategic plans.

Trust boards are becoming increasingly influential to the success of our national school system, especially as it grows. And now, there is an ever-increasing pressure for the best innovators, leaders, and strategists to become Trustees and Members of our boards.

Board recruitment challenges

1. Diversity

Close your eyes and picture the Chair of a School Board. Many people will picture a retired professional – probably a white, British male.

You wouldn’t be too far wrong.

The NGA’s annual governance survey in 2021 revealed that 93% of respondents were white. 9/10 times when I ask boards how they recruit, they tell me that it is “through their board’s existing network”. So, it’s no surprise our sector lacks diversity in our governance boards. Is it right that our boards do not reflect the demographic that their schools serve?

Whilst it is not imperative for governance boards to consist only of local people, creating synergy between the community and the board that serves it is important. By aligning the diversity in their governance to their locality, schools and MATs are better placed to truly understand the impacts of their decision-making, which can only benefit their trust.

2. Thinking locally, and only locally

Governing boards, traditionally, are comprised of local individuals looking to give back to the community that they have either grown up or currently reside in. This model has been effective as the governors know their area, and truly understand the cultures that their local schools (should) embody. However, as the MAT landscape sees Trusts expanding across regions, it’s becoming crucial that our boards look to draw on expertise from across the country. In the post-Covid world, it is easy and beneficial to meet people no matter where they are. Boards need individuals to challenge local ways of working, seek alternatives, and collaborate with leaders to find the best solutions to their problems. Diverse trust boards that are ‘blended’ in composition are proving to be more effective, and are a model that more and more MATs should, and will be following in years to come.

3. Outdated skills audits

86% of schools in MATs are rated Ofsted ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. As MATs grow, the importance of maintaining high-performance levels also grows. To do this, boards need a continual stream of fresh ideas and strategic nous across a range of skill sets on their board. One common theme I find when speaking with schools and MATs about their board is that they are missing ‘XXX professionals’ (often finance, education, or audit).

Yet how boards arrive at this conclusion is often the product of a skills audit that is not fully reflective of the strategic intention or current positionality of the trust. As a trust develops, so does its strategy, and as its strategy develops, so does the requirement for different skill sets on the board. At Peridot, we positively challenge the method by which Chairs and governance professionals have come about their skills audit process and often find that their skills audit process is not updated on a regular basis. Skills audits need to be relevant to the present and planned context of the trust and help boards identify where their board’s strengths lie, and where their gaps in knowledge might be. Ultimately, we want trust boards to consider ‘who do we need to enable us to get to where we’re going?’ and ‘what knowledge and expertise can our executive benefit from?’.

Without broad and diverse knowledge and experience, MATs risk ‘mission drift’ as their attention is drawn to growth and the challenge (or threat) of acquisition or merger. Similarly, boards can lack purpose and punctuality in their meetings without the right skills on the board at the right stage of a trust’s strategic journey. It is vital, therefore, that boards continue to evaluate their existing skillsets against their strategy and direction of travel to continue to find the right people for their board.

I hope this has invoked discussion for your boards and either confirmed that your board practice is up-to-date or will encourage re-evaluation. Now we have established the challenges that boards face and understand what can be done through recruitment, tune in next week when we will begin to look at how we get there.

Eddie Caviezel Cox is our Business Manager for Schools and Education Charities and an expert in finding and recruiting the right people in all areas of the education sector, having worked in recruitment throughout his career. He brings a person-centred, values-led approach to all projects to ensure that the leaders he is placing are the right people to take organisations of great social importance forwards. By placing the right leaders in Schools, Multi-Academy Trusts and Education charities, we are able to make a difference where it matters most. You can connect with Eddie on LinkedIn or send him an email.