In a previous blog post, we discussed academy trustees: who are they, and what do they do? We touched briefly on the differences between the role and that of school governors within the education space. While both are crucial in overseeing educational institutions, understanding the differences between the two roles is essential for effective governance in schools and academy trusts.  

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the nuances of each role and highlight their unique contributions to the educational landscape. That way, you can understand whether the academy trustee or school governor role is right for you.  


Let’s begin by talking about school governors…

School governors volunteer their time and expertise to provide strategic leadership and accountability in schools. Traditionally, governors served maintained schools, which are publicly funded institutions under the jurisdiction of local authorities. School governors can be drawn from various backgrounds, including parents, staff, and the local community, or act as appointed representatives (from the Local Authority or Diocese, for example).

Academy Trusts’ governance structures also include a similar role to that of the school governor, with localised ‘councils’ known variously as ‘local governing boards’, ‘local governing committee’, and ‘local academy boards’ among others. For ease, we’ll refer to Local Governing Boards (LGBs). These LGBs are created when academy trustees delegate specific responsibilities relating to the individual academies within their trust. In some cases, every academy in a trust might have its own LGB that has a specific remit. Every trust board will delegate differently and will differ in who is responsible for different decisions. The overall Trust’s Scheme of Delegation will typically be available on its website and outlines how decision-making operates and how the roles may inter-relate.  

The primary responsibilities of school governors may include: 

  • Strategic planning: School governors are tasked with setting the school’s vision, ethos, and strategic direction. They work closely with the headteacher and senior leadership team of the school/academy to develop policies and plans that align with the school’s objectives. 
  • Monitoring performance: School governors monitor the school’s performance and ensure that it meets statutory requirements and educational standards. This involves scrutinising academic progress, finances, and overall effectiveness, often through regular meetings and data analysis. 
  • Financial management: School governors oversee the school’s budget, ensuring that financial resources are allocated appropriately to support teaching and learning. They also approve major expenditures and monitor financial sustainability. 
  • Accountability: School governors are accountable to various stakeholders, including parents, the local community, and regulatory bodies. They communicate with stakeholders, provide transparency, and respond to concerns or inquiries about the school’s operations. 


Why become a school governor instead of an academy trustee?

If you’re beginning your career, you might consider a school governor role over an academy trustee position. Usually, academy trusts are looking for strategic leaders, many of whom will possess pre-existing board-level experience. If you’re new to governance or leadership, a school governor role can be a great place to get you started.  

You may also have a specific desire to support a very local area, a particular school, and/or want to feel more closely connected to ‘on the ground’ work at a school or academy. While the roles of governor and trustee have some overlap, your preferences and priorities will always take precedence when we source a suitable role. 

While on a school board, you’ll learn leadership skills and develop your networks. Experience as a school governor can also help you fast-track your career due to the transferable skills you will gain.  


But what about academy trustees?

While academy trustees fulfil similar functions to school governors, they operate within the context of academy trusts, which are over-arching organisations that encompass anything from two to more than 50 academies. Academies (each school within an academy trust) are publicly funded schools that operate independently of local authority control, giving them greater autonomy over aspects such as staffing and finance. As such, academy trustees have a broader scope of responsibilities compared to school governors.  

The key responsibilities of academy trustees include: 

  • Setting vision and direction: Like school governors, academy trustees are responsible for setting the strategic vision and direction of the academy trust. They develop long-term plans and policies that reflect the academy trusts’ mission and goals, ensuring alignment with legal and regulatory frameworks. 
  • Financial oversight: Academy trustees have a significant role in financial management, overseeing budgets, financial planning, and risk management. They must ensure the efficient and effective use of financial resources to support educational outcomes. 
  • Legal compliance: Academy trustees are also responsible for ensuring that the academy trust operates in compliance with relevant laws, regulations, and contractual obligations. This includes safeguarding requirements, employment law, and governance standards set by the Department for Education (DfE). 
  • Performance Monitoring: Academy trustees monitor the academy’s performance against key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives. They review data on academic achievement, attendance, and other metrics to assess progress and identify areas for improvement. 


Why become an academy trustee instead of a school governor?

Becoming an academy trustee is a challenging (but rewarding) role and is a great way to give back. Academy trustees can develop richer leadership and interpersonal skills, gaining non-executive director experience along the way.  

Academy trustees will also gain high-level strategic experience and insight, enhancing their professional careers at an accelerated rate. The need to assimilate large bodies of information, provide accountability and challenge to the trust’s leadership, and offer robust scrutiny and oversight of multiple aspects of performance is vital to the role. While the time commitment can be similar to that of a governor – approximately 6-8 hours per month on average – the academy trustee role is a dual one: individuals also act as non-executive directors, listed on Companies House, subject to company law. 

Breadth of experience, background, knowledge, and expertise is vital to a well-functioning board. A trustee-appropriate candidate may typically possess pre-existing experience at board level in a corporate, charity, or other setting. This provides a good understanding of effective governance and leadership. The budgetary responsibility and oversight of multi-site performance across many different locations and (potentially) geographic areas means that experience and comfort in this way of working are absolutely essential. Some of the largest and most far-reaching trusts will handle nearly a quarter of a billion pounds per year, while even small trusts will have budgets of seven figures.

Nevertheless, many boards are seeking to increase diversity – of experience, knowledge, and background – and improve their skills mix. Therefore, the ‘traditional’ view of what may constitute a trustee is evolving as a more well-rounded perspective is welcomed. 


Key differences and similarities between school governors and academy trustees

While school governors and academy trustees share many responsibilities, there are notable differences between the two roles: 

  • Autonomy: Academies have greater autonomy in areas such as staffing, and finance compared to maintained schools. This autonomy extends to academy trustees, who have more flexibility in decision-making. 
  • Accountability: Both school governors and academy trustees are accountable for the performance and governance of their respective institutions. However, academy trustees may face additional scrutiny due to their increased autonomy and financial independence. 
  • Schools: In governance structure terms, academy trustees sit at board level and are responsible for all of the schools in an academy trust (as compared to school governors who are responsible for individual schools, almost like ‘committees’, reporting to the board).  
  • Size: Academy trusts can be small (1-3 schools) or huge (40+ schools) and have budgets ranging from £5m to more than £100m. Funding comes directly from the government rather than through the Local Authority. This means academy trusts and academy trustees need to ensure transparency around its management and effective use.  
  • Responsibility: Academy trustees are listed as company directors of an academy trust which is not the case for school governors.  


Interested in becoming an academy trustee or school governor?

Thinking about becoming an academy trustee or school governor? You’re in the right place! 

Our Becoming a Trustee and Trustee Induction eLearning courses have been designed to help you get equipped with the knowledge you need to take on the role. Alternatively, for those interested in a school governor role, find out more via the Governors for Schools website. 

If you’ve already decided to apply, you can apply to become an academy trustee directly with the Trustee Recruitment Service or, apply to become a school governor with our Governor Recruitment Service.