The Golden Thread – Why Governance Matters for Academy Schools

Governance is a hot topic at the moment, academies have had their share of public scrutiny, with regular headlines referring to conflicts of interest, related party transactions and the improper use of public funds. The interest is not going to go away any time soon. Regulators, and the wider public, have increasing expectations of those running organisations and standards will undoubtedly get higher the more such stories circulate.

Good governance is essential to every organisation, regardless of sector, size or complexity. Those responsible for the strategic direction of an organisation and accountable for delivering the organisation’s aims play a pivotal role in the governance arrangements within their entity. Sound decision-making, accurate records, compliance, transparency and accountability are key board activities. They are not always easy to get right, however, and sometimes can be seen as unnecessary or an additional burden to actually getting things done. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Good governance should be viewed as an enabler; providing structure, clarity and evidence of sound decision-making and the success of an organisation. Good governance provides a framework for making reasonable decisions, in a way that can be repeated, and delivers an audit trail of decisions taken by the board all the way down to delivery and effective impact at the grassroots. While it might not be seen as essential in the good times, good governance certainly comes to the fore when a crisis hits.

Governance is not always an easy concept to understand. In academies, it relates to the relationships between the academy board, local governing bodies or advisory councils (in MATs), the senior leadership team, staff, parents and pupils and other stakeholders. It demonstrates accountability and how the charitable objects and educational goals are delivered.

Governance might not be exciting to anyone other than a governance geek, but it is much more than just policies, procedures, rules and regulations. Its value and impact should not be underestimated, and while it shouldn’t be Byzantine in its execution, it does take ongoing work and improvement. Essentially, it depends on three inter-related factors (the three ‘Ps’):

  • Purpose:
    • Clarity of purpose – establishing a clear vision as to the purpose of the organisation and how those aims will be achieved
  • Procedures:
    • Effective procedures – putting in place, and regularly reviewing, appropriate, relevant and proportionate policies and procedures to ensure decisions are made legally, ethically and in the best interests of the organisation
  • People:           
    • Recruiting the right people for the right role – talent management starts with the board ensuring they attract and retain the right mix of skills, experience, competencies and diversity around the boardroom table to make the best decisions, and cascading that approach to staff appointments.

Supporting these are the core corporate governance concepts of transparency, independence, accountability, responsibility, fairness and social responsibility. The Committee on Standards in Public Life set out the Nolan Principles[1] of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership, all of which pertain to trustees, directors and governors.

At its most fundamental, good academy governance will incorporate:

  • the role of trustees/directors/governors and senior leaders
    • role of the chairman
    • role of trustees and directors and governors
    • role of senior leadership team
    • hallmarks of a successful MAT board
  • board composition and succession planning
  • board support and the role of the governance professional
  • principles of sound decision-making
  • effective meetings
  • delegations
  • board performance evaluation
  • audit, risk and remuneration
  • stakeholder engagement.

The primary arena for establishing and delivering good governance is the boardroom. It is therefore essential that the mechanics and dynamics of board meetings are productive, effective and challenging. The board’s role is to provide leadership of the academy within a framework of prudent, effective and proportionate controls which enables risk to be evaluated and managed.

A successful board will develop and promote a collective vision for the academy’s purpose that mirrors the charitable objects and educational aims of the organisation. Aligned to that vision will be the organisation’s internal operating climate, culture, behaviours and values: these will be established by the board, articulated and embodied in the actions of the trustees/directors.

A successful board is not necessarily a comfortable place. Challenge as well as teamwork is essential. Diversity in the boardroom is an important factor of the board’s effectiveness, creating a breadth of perspective among trustees/directors and senior leaders and breaking down any inclination towards ‘group think’. It is important to consider a diversity of personal attributes among board candidates in order to avoid the dangers of group think, including:

  • critical assessment
  • sound judgement
  • courage
  • independence of thought
  • openness
  • honesty
  • tact
  • humility
  • flexibility in thinking
  • ability to listen
  • ability to forge and build productive relationships
  • ability to develop and inspire trust.

A high-performing board will clearly understand the purpose of the organisation, their role within it, the powers they have and where they are derived from. It will demonstrate trust and respect alongside constructive and robust challenge of the information presented to the board. It will also take time to reflect on its performance, and the performance of those who report to it, and have courageous conversations to make improvements that are going to deliver for pupils and the wider community.

Governance is a board responsibility in the sense that they report on it to stakeholders and are legally held to account for it. However, for governance to be truly fit for purpose, it must be embedded throughout the organisation. It is a golden thread that extends from the boardroom to the classroom, and back again. The chief executive/executive head and the senior leadership team are therefore integral in ensuring that the vision, culture and values established by the board are cascaded and demonstrated at every level in the academy.

Good governance should not be complex or difficult, but it does require an ongoing desire to review, reflect and change arrangements where they no longer meet the needs of the academy or MAT. Good governance, and effective boards, are not the destination, but an ongoing journey that can take many twists and turns necessary for the benefit of the school, pupils, regulators and others with an interest in their work.


ICSA: The Governance Institute is running a half-day workshop on Board Meeting Skills for Academies on 23 March 2017. Details can be found at

Guidance on building MAT board effectiveness is available to download for free at


About the author:

Louise Thomson is Head of Policy (Not for Profit) at ICSA: The Governance Institute

About ICSA: The Governance Institute:

ICSA: The Governance Institute is the professional body for governance. We have members in all sectors and are required by our Royal Charter to lead ‘effective governance and efficient administration of commerce, industry and public affairs’. With over 125 years’ experience, we work with regulators and policy makers to champion high standards of governance and provide qualifications, training and guidance.

[1] Information about the Nolan Principles can be found via:

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