This blog has been jointly created by Governors for Schools and the Confederation of School Trusts (CST).

As a CEO of a trust, I have learnt an enormous amount from my time on the boards of CST and National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). The opportunity to sit on the other side of the table and be involved in the strategic planning for the future of an organisation, with people from a wide range of backgrounds and experience, has been of huge benefit to me in my CEO role.

Susan Douglas, CEO of Eden Academy Trust, and trustee at CST and NFER 

As school and trust leaders, you know the value of your trustees. They’re your ‘guardians of purpose’. They volunteer their time and energy selflessly to ensure the success of your trusts. They work closely with you to set the strategic direction and culture of your trusts and maintain a sharp focus on the main charitable object of every school trust in the country – advancing education for public benefit. 

So why are trusts struggling to find trustees with education experience? Why aren’t more school and trust leaders serving as trustees in other trusts?

The benefits of trusteeship 

As school and trust leaders, you require a multitude of skills to ensure the best outcomes for staff and pupils. Trusteeship provides unparalleled professional development for you to fulfil these roles effectively. By experiencing the view from the other side of the table, you will gain board management insight first-hand and develop an awareness of what boards need from their leaders and executive teams, allowing you to better manage your own. You will witness how other trusts interact with the DfE and build their relationships with Regional Directors. You will gain exposure to different school and trust structures, operations, and ways of working that will inform your own work. You will learn from others in the sector, sharing knowledge and skills, and understanding and developing them in return.  

Trusteeship is system generosity 

CST has written extensively about the importance of civic and system leadership and our collective duty to act on the system. We cannot wait for external fixes or to be led by the government of the day. We now have the experience and expertise within our sector to come up with our own solutions to entrenched problems in education. And if we are to advance education for public benefit, deep and purposeful collaboration beyond and between trusts is as important as collaboration within our schools and trusts. We have a duty to share ideas and excellent practice so all children and communities can benefit, and no child, school or community is left behind. You can do all of this by serving as a trustee in another trust. 

Following the lead of other industries 

Employers in other industries have long recognised the value of encouraging their staff to become trustees. Governors for Schools (GfS) works closely with senior leaders across a range of other industries, including partners, directors, and CEOs, finding them opportunities to engage in school and trust governance. It’s a win-win. Leaders gain professional development and unique opportunities to give something back to the community, all the while improving the culture of their own organisations and increasing staff satisfaction and retention. 

GfS has recently begun a joint project with AtkinsRealis to source and place STEM governors in schools in areas of deprivation, special schools and all-girls schools. Some large organisations have joined the programme, including Network Rail, all recognising the mutual benefit of encouraging their leaders into governance roles. Our sector can and should now follow the lead of other industries. 

Being given the time to be a trustee 

We can hear the first objection: ‘I don’t have time.’ Workload issues are nowhere as endemic as they are in education. But here again, we must follow the lead of other industries and build in time for our staff to be trustees. Yes, this may mean time away from other tasks, but the long-term benefits to schools and trusts (and the system as a whole) are immense. We hear daily about innovative ideas and practices that are spread by leaders who witness them firsthand through a governance role in another school or trust. 

Our question to boards of trustees: Do you encourage your school and trust leaders to become trustees? Are you ensuring they are being given adequate time, opportunity and encouragement to do so? Until this is prioritised and valued from the top, as in other industries, it will not take hold.  

It’s an exciting time to be a trustee 

2023 has been a great year for trust governance. In October, the sector published its own governance code – the Academy Trust Governance Code – created by the sector, for the sector. Through the code, we can begin to set our own high standards for the types of principles, behaviours and values that we know lead to successful outcomes in school trusts. We now have shared concepts and a shared language around culture – probably the most important ingredient to success in a trust. 

Growth is firmly on the agenda and this year we also gained some much-needed clarity from our regulator on the attributes of a high-quality trust. Using CST’s assurance framework, trusts across the country are now assessing their own strengths and weaknesses and considering whether they are ready to grow. 

These developments are a mark of maturity for our sector and a welcome sign that the school trust sector has come into its own. They are a recognition that the school trust sector is now a formidable force in education and that it has the experience and expertise to set its own educational and governance standards for improving schools and, in the process, improving the entire educational system. 

It’s an exciting time to be a trustee. So, what are you waiting for? Get in touch with GfS’s Trustee Recruitment Service to help find your perfect role, begin developing your skills further and to benefit the sector today. CST can also support you with your trusteeship through our new governance briefings, due to begin soon, as well as our governance guidance, courses, events and our Trustees and Governance Leaders Professional Community.