SK logo
April 12, 2024

Publication of new Academy Trust Governance Guide

Publication of new Academy Trust Governance Guide

Date updated:
Stone King

April 2024

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently made a number of changes to its governance guidance which is relevant to academy trusts. A new Academy Trust Governance Guide (guide) was published in March 2024. At the same time, the DfE withdrew the following academy trust guidance documents:

Whereas the handbook, covered maintained school and academy governance, the guide focusses solely on academies (with a new Maintained School Governance Guide published and equivalent maintained school guidance withdrawn at the same time). 

Whilst the format of the guide is different to the handbook and other former governance guidance, the substance of the guide remains very familiar. Rather than changing what is expected of academy trusts, it largely consolidates former guidance documents into one publication. The guide is much shorter and less detailed than the withdrawn guidance documents and provides a signpost for places where academy trusts can find additional help and support.

  • Clear focus on academy governance – separating out the maintained and academy governance guidance means the guide is more focussed. The previous handbook had the risk of confusing governance issues for maintained schools and academies, which have quite different organisational structures and statutory and regulatory obligations. The new guide is solely concerned with how academies are operated and governed. For example, the sections on risk management, conflicts of interest, compliance etc are specific to the academy trust context, reflecting wider requirements of the Academy Trust Handbook (ATH) and other statutory obligations. For example, the sections on risk management, conflicts of interest, compliance etc are specific to the academy trust context, reflecting wider requirements of the ATH and other statutory obligations.

  • General reduction in content – the guide is a slimline version of the handbook and previous academy trust governance guidance. There is now less content, which on the one hand makes the guide less prescriptive than the handbook, although on the other risks removing clarity in places. Unlike the previous handbook, the guide is a web-based document, and no longer available as a separate downloadable pdf. This gives greater flexibility for the DfE to update the document from time to time.

  • Increased emphasis on third party resources – greater weight is given to the resources of third parties, with more links to where academy trusts can find appropriate governance advice and support from organisations other than the DfE.

  • Commissioning High Quality Trusts – whilst the previous handbook highlighted three core functions of effective governance, the guide now uses terminology which reflects the DfE’s guidance on Commissioning High-Quality Trusts (which was published after the last iteration of the handbook). The guide is structured around the five pillars of academy trust quality within the Trust Quality Descriptions ((1) high-quality and inclusive education, (2) school improvement, (3) workforce, (4) finance and operations, and (5) governance and leadership), with an emphasis on governance and leadership. 

  • Greater consistency with the ATH - the guide is now more consistent with the ATH, which has been updated several times since the last edition of the handbook.

  • Use of “must” and “should” – the guide now distinguishes between whether something is a “must” i.e. a legal/regulatory requirement/duty, or a “should” i.e. minimum good practice (which needs to be followed unless the academy trust can show that a different approach would be better in the circumstances). Whilst the previous handbook did previously set out requirements and best practice, the new guide is more explicit on what is required, using the same terminology as the ATH. 

  • Role of the governance professional – the role of the governance professional has not substantively altered, however as noted above, the DfE has now withdrawn the Clerking Competency Framework which detailed the skills and behaviours required for professional clerking of academy trusts. The guide now refers to third party guidance on the role of the governance professional, from the Chartered Institute of Governance, Confederation of School Trusts and the National Governance Association. The guide is also now consistent in using the terminology governance professional, rather than clerk.

  • Role of members and trustees – again, the roles of members and trustees of an academy trust have not changed. The guide though is less detailed about the role of members and trustees as Academy Trust Governance – Structures and Role Descriptors has now been withdrawn. For example, information regarding the powers of members and how members make decisions is not featured in the guide. There is also more signposting to third party resources, rather than explicit DfE guidance.

  • Annual General Meetings (AGM) – the guide now clarifies that the current Church of England and mainstream model articles require an AGM to be held. It is also stresses in more detail the DfE’s view on the importance of AGMs for example in ensuring members are kept updated about board decision-making, to support trustee accountability.

  • Local committees – the guide now uses the terminology “local committee” rather than referring to multi-academy trust “local governing bodies”. Despite the change in terminology, the role of these committees remains the same and it is still a decision of the board of trustees as to whether they have delegated decision-making powers or are advisory only. 

  • Chair and vice-chair of trustees – the guide now makes clear that the role of the chair can be shared, as can the role of vice-chair. It is also clarified (although this was the case previously) that the chair cannot act alone in conducting board functions, except where approved by the board of trustees (and where such delegation is permitted). Any such delegated decisions of the chair, need to be reported to the board of trustees and recorded in the board minutes.

  • Trustees serving on multiple boards – the DfE has clarified that it is their recommendation that trustees serve on no more than two trust boards or governing bodies, other than in exceptional circumstances.

  • Parent elections – some of the detail relating to parent elections to academy trust boards and committees has been removed, largely this now just references the obligations in the trust’s articles of association.

  • External reviews of governance (ERGs) – the guide retains a section on ERGs and how these can be more effective than self-evaluation. The guide now adds a section on what the board of trustees should do where the DfE, Charity Commission or other authority recommends an ERG. This includes the need to ensure that the ERG is independent and that conflicts of interest (or perceived conflicts of interest) between the reviewer and the board are avoided.

  • Staff wellbeing, workload and working conditions – the guide has expanded this section from the previous handbook, including greater emphasis on staff wellbeing.

  • Cyber security – this section has been expanded in the guide and makes clear that the board will seek assurances from the trust’s senior leaders that the trust is prepared should a cyber incident arise. It is also noted that at least one trustee should complete the cyber security training.

  • Estate management and asbestos – the guide now features a separate section on estate management, highlighting the expectation that trust estate is managed strategically and maintained in a safe working condition. A section regarding the duty of trusts to manage asbestos in their academies effectively has also been added.

  • Statutory policies – the guide now features a list of statutory policies within it, rather than as a separate guidance document.

Academy trusts should ensure that they review the guide and familiarise themselves with the content. As noted, though, much of the information will be recognisable already and whilst now directed at academy trusts specifically, the guide does not represent any substantive new requirements.

If you have any questions on the guide and require advice, please do contact your usual Stone King contact or Graham Burns at