UK: Emma Perkin: 'Good Governance Is Fundamental To How We Grow And Evolve Our Schools'

Last Updated: 15 November 2018
Article by Sonia Sharma

The founder and lead consultant at The Constant Group, talks about her journey into academy governance and the fundamental role it plays

Emma Perkin’s career began in the charity sector, and then gradually moved over into academy governance. “I was first approached to work for Camden School for Girls, which is an interesting school in terms of governance because it’s a non-denominational voluntary-aided school, which is quite unusual” she says. 'From that point on, my career has been a series of, as I describe it, "Can you just?" So it was, "Can you just minute the governing body meeting? Can you just clerk?" That was my road into governance.'

After this she started working for St Marylebone Church of England School before delving further into governance. “I then started to think about where I wanted to go next, and I was aware that a school was opening very close to where I live. It happened to be a school that’s part of the Ark Schools network. I approached them to talk about their governance support, believing that their governance would be what I was used to from the non-academy sector, and that was my journey into multi-academy trust and academy governance.'

'I worked with Ark for five years, ultimately as their Head of Governance and during my time we went from 17 to 34 schools.' Today she runs The Constant Group which she “set up very specifically in recognition of the challenges facing school leaders and governors, specifically around academy governance, multi-academy trust governance, and governance at scale.'

Academy governance is said to be a fairly ‘young’ sector. What do you think are some of the fundamental governance issues that are facing the sector today?

Academy governance has rapidly become quite a wide community. There are over 1,000 schools that are stand-alone academy trusts, so the biggest representation in terms of number of organisations when we talk about academy governance is still a single-entity school.

The challenges that face them in terms of governance, compared to the challenges that face, for example, a small multi-academy trust of five or so schools, compared to the challenges that faced me when I was overseeing governance of 34 schools, are significantly different.

So when I started my role, I went from having worked with one school to working with 17, which meant I working with 17 Chairs of Governors and 17 Headteachers. You are working very closely with those stakeholders but also bringing those relationships back to the executive team within the MAT. The challenge I found was where to get effective support and guidance that was tailored and tiered to MAT governance and MAT governance delivered at scale. So what I did was reach out to the other MATs at my size to just seek support. And as part of that we set up what I’ve lovingly called the “Big MAT” Group.

Through this Group, all the governance professionals working in a MAT of over 30 schools -which was originally the definition of big - now come together three times a year. This is hosted by Ark, and we come together to share conundrums, to share practice, to share learnings with each other. We then reached out beyond our MATs to those organisations that are supporting us.

So ICSA attend, as well as The Confederation of School Trusts, Academy Ambassadors and the National Governance Association. We’re at a table together talking about the issues that are facing the sector. And I would like to see that modelling going across small and medium sized MATs as well. Because there are issues that come very specifically with size. I think it would be great if, for argument’s sake, the ‘20 to 30’ are meetings with each other, the ‘10 to 20’, and so on.

The issue is around what governance looks like as you grow, and for me there is a tipping point. This is a given point where schools and trusts can no longer function as they’re used to being able to do. This is true not just in terms of the governance, but also infrastructurally within the individual academies and MATs and at that point, they have to start looking at how they actually function at scale.

“members are really key when the trust governance is in trouble. Having clarity about what they do and what they don’t do is absolutely fundamental”

Governance in MATs has multiple layers and multiple regulators and this, and the fact that the sector is growing at pace and the thinking is evolving the whole time, is one of the challenges for the sector.

What value do you think good governance can bring to an academy organisation?

Good governance brings value not just to an academy organisation, brings value to all schools and education organisations full stop. Good governance is fundamental to how we grow and evolve our schools, and I think that governance done well is key to driving school improvement. It is also key to schools being part of the communities that they exist in, and being part of the development of that community.

Thinking about stakeholder engagement, what do you think are some of the effective strategies surrounding transparency, and where is the accountability within the framework?

One of the most important elements is honesty. I think that it is really challenging, but if you’re taking schools into a pre-existing multi-academy trust (MAT), it’s about being very clear to the governing body, to the staff, and to the parent community about what it is they are joining into.

One of the big discussions in the sector is around the role of the local governing bodies within multi-academy trusts, and about their areas of responsibility. I'm Chair of Governors of a Local Governing Body within a multi-academy trust, and I think the governance structure within the MAT is actually a benefit to my board. You are given significant support in how you operate your local governance, and, done well, you have freedoms that you don’t have within the maintained structure, so for example at a meeting I attended recently, the core statutory policies had actually been written by the experts within the MAT structure.

There are great strengths in the academy governance structure. I think that where there can be issues is where the delegations aren’t clearly communicated -up-front, not out of dishonesty but not explaining this complex process fully enough.

There has been some discussion around the appointment of members, and in their respective parts within the framework. Do you feel that the role of members is clear?

No. Interestingly, as a consultancy, we’ve done quite a lot of training with members within multi-academy trusts. There are three core documents from which the role of members are defined, and that’s the Model Articles of Association, The Governance Handbook, and The Academies Financial Handbook. In each of the three you find slightly different nuances about what they say.

What I would say about the role of members is that the members are really key when the trust governance is in trouble. Having clarity about what they do and what they don’t do is absolutely fundamental. I’ve been with trusts where the members really haven’t understood their role, and this is something that should be recognised. It’s an interesting conundrum, and key is to consider who you recruit into that role, then as a trust to think about how you inform them, how you keep them engaged in the work of your trust, but also how they structure their own involvement. For example, one of the things that we discuss with members is the idea that one of them might be part of the recruitment and interview process for trustees so they’re able to have that link.

Under new rules from the Department of Education, related party transactions need to be cleared by the Education Skills Funding Agency. What is your take on the new approval rules and do you think this could contribute to effective academy guidance?

For me the simplest way of moving forward would just be to say that they shouldn’t happen.

When I work with trusts, what I say to them is why would you have related party transactions? There’s is obviously a significant focus on them now, and how the Department for Education is going to be able to process the changes which is presumably going to be quite challenging for them. It is definitely a move in the right direction, but broadly speaking I think we’ll see a day where they’re just not allowed at all.

With some of the recent issues that have been highlighted, what could academies do to prevent any future conflicts of interest?

To avoid conflicts it is incredibly important that you put all the people involved in your governance structure through robust recruitment, robust induction, and robust evaluation processes. It’s then about the governance professional absolutely understanding exactly who’s around the table and making sure that at every point they are clear about their declarations and what they do to manage these. All involved in the process have to hold each other to account.

Many multi-academy trusts have local governing bodies as committees of the trust board, but there still seems to be some confusion about the purpose of those committees. What positive insights can you offer to make the aspect of academy governance more effective?

I think it’s absolutely key that you have a scheme of delegation that is understood at the local school level. It must be written in a way that can be understood by all of those participating in it and there is honesty and an integrity around the conversations regarding roles and responsibilities with that local governing body.

Again, the role of the governance professional working with that stakeholder group is key because they are the ones who can then make sure that they understand their role, their remit, and how it operates. The communication flow that happens between that local group and the kind of trust/executive arm of governance is fundamental.

What value do you think that a clerk or company secretary can bring into the academy trust board?

In a nutshell they are fundamental. For me key to good governance is the role of the governance professional. What academy governance has led to is someone who isn’t a clerk and isn’t a company secretary, they are Heads of Governance or Governance Managers within trusts.

Their role has grown from the traditional role of the clerk that we understand from schools. Quite often they have a company secretarial element to what they do in terms of the board, but what they are actually doing is overseeing the whole governance of the structure within the multi-academy trust. That person is the lynchpin to embedding good governance within multi-academy trusts.

The Constant Group has set up The Academy Governance Insight Group where we are specifically working with governance professionals within trusts to give them practical support around how they deliver governance.

When I recruit to this role I look for a very specific skill set, and one of the key things I'm looking for is someone who has the ability to work with quite a complex group of stakeholders. I will work with people who haven’t had backgrounds in governance but spend quite a considerable amount of time training them into role, because I recognise the qualities they bring. One of the areas that is frustrating for me – and I'm really glad that both ICSA and the Confederation of School Trusts are working to raise this awareness – is the lack of profile given to that specific role.

Federation governance within the maintained school sector is something that also has complexities around the way it operates in the sense that they are confined to a set of regulations that were not written for governance at size. So the regulations assumed one school and one governing body. I’ve just finished a 12-month project with, I think, one of the largest federations that I was able to find in the UK, of eight schools focusing on how we could get effective governance in place within the confines of the law. I think we shouldn’t forget that they are a group who are also doing governance at size, and that they should be part of the governance discussion. One of the things that I’d like to change – which I think ICSA is beginning to do – is driving the education sector to look outside of education for conversations around governance.

Interview by Sonia Sharma, editor of Governance and Compliance

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