Academy Governance

An overview

This section of CatholicLinks deals with matters related to the governance of Catholic academies.

The governance of voluntary aided (VA) Catholic schools and of Catholic academies is deliberately considered separately on the CatholicLinks website.  Although there are many similarities, there are also some fundamental differences in governance related to the nature of schools and academies – their legal entity, the powers and duties that flow from their legal character, and the functions they are required to fulfil in accordance with their differing legal frameworks.

Trying to talk about both the governance of schools and the governance of academies at the same time, with the same language, and in the same detail regarding the execution of functions, soon breaks down into having to continually qualify the differences between them.  The constant need to explain how they are legally different, and what that means in practice, can lead to ambiguity, confusion and uncertainty about the fine detail of governance rooted in the legal status and obligations of a VA school or an academy. Therefore, CatholicLinks has provided two separate sections on the website: one relating to the governance of schools and one relating to the governance of academies, which eliminates the need for continually qualifying the differences.  In simple terms – it is easier to write and easier to read!

Having separated governing voluntary aided schools from governing academies helps simplify the nature of governance in these respective contexts, but it is fair to say that talking and writing about the governance of schools is much simpler than doing the same with respect to academies.  The reason is straightforward; all voluntary aided Catholic schools operate under the same legislation, the same legal framework, using the same language and terminology, subject to the same accountabilities, monitoring and intervention.  At its simplest, any governor from any governing body anywhere in the country can talk about the basic features of governance and know they are bound by the same rules and regulations.  This does not apply in such a straightforward way to academies.

Academies are created using company law and contracts.  In the early days of academisation (from 2010) the DfE was intent of persuading schools to become academies, i.e. getting diocesan bishops and trustees represented by diocesan education services to agree conversion, and was more inclined to be flexible about the model of the academy company and the finer detail of the documentation in order to achieve the target of numbers converting. In December 2010, at a meeting in Westminster, the Catholic bishops and their trustees represented by their respective diocesan education services declined to agree collectively on a ‘national’ model for academy conversion and consequently from 2010 onwards individual dioceses became focused on their individual agendas with respect to academisation, models and documentation. However one describes the reality, in the last year or more, the DfE has tried to ‘encourage’ standardisation of the models in use by diocese. And, the CES has promoted the idea of using the CES model documents without modification. It remains to be seen how this ‘squeeze’ on conformity affects the practice of conversion in individual dioceses. Certainly, there was a time and potentially an opportunity to agree a ‘national’ model for the conversion of Catholic academies … and arguably aspects of the model that mattered greatly, and still do; there is good sense in the phrase ‘the devil is in the detail’. Whether or not individual dioceses will now be willing collectively to move away from their preferred models – and local protections – and take on an agreed ‘national’ model is debatable.

The reality is that the history of their creation and development to date means that academies across the English dioceses will have been established using a variety of different models and legal documentation particular to the diocese in question.  There may even be differences within dioceses, as well as between dioceses, in terms of the models for academy conversion, the arrangements for governance and the fine detail of the legal documents.  Consequently, it is impossible to be as definitive about specific matters in relation to any individual academy without reference to the legal documentation that established the said academy.

It is also necessary to take account of the fact that some dioceses may only have single academies, some may only have groups of academies.  Some dioceses have both single academies and academies constituted in groups.  Certainly, going forwards it is likely that schools will / can only convert together with others; apart from the fact this is preferred government policy, it seems to be the preference of dioceses.

To date some dioceses have embraced academy conversion and have a range of models for academy conversion; some dioceses have embraced academy conversion and have a single model for academy conversion; some dioceses have elected not to go down the route of supporting academy conversion.  It remains to be seen what the long-view will look like and how changes to the political landscape over time will affect what dioceses choose to adopt as policy, and in turn how that policy will be translated into practice.

In this section some basics are established: the roots of all governance; clarity regarding the use of terminology – especially now there are academies in place; and the role of the diocese in relation to the governance of a Catholic academy company.

CatholicLinks explores and unpicks basic knowledge and understanding regarding the constitution and functioning of a board of directors of a Catholic academy company (sometimes known as an academy trust company) that provides governance for the individual academies run by the company, and the powers and duties of the directors, individually and collectively.

The three core functions of the board of directors are considered, which arise from the articles of association that establish the academy company and the funding agreement that funds the maintenance of the academy or the academies in question,

  • setting the vision and strategic direction;
  • holding the principal to account for the educational performance of the academy; and
  • ensuring financial resources are well spent in the best interests of the children served by the academy.

Having clarified what a board of directors has to do, this is followed by consideration of how you make governance work within the context of an academy company.  The board of directors, which provides the governance, is established with a common purpose, mission, vision and values.  People are recruited and appointed with the necessary characteristics and skills to be effective directors.  They may well share theoretical knowledge about how a team – especially a team of directors – is meant to work, but knowing these ingredients alone is not enough.

The board of directors needs to use these ingredients in a recipe for effectiveness, which includes using strategies such as: working with and through committees; ensuring quality leadership by the chair; and the quality support and guidance provided by the clerk to directors.  Other strategies that knit together effective organisational structures, procedures and effective interpersonal working also need to be employed if the board of directors is going to grow and develop into a high performing team.


There is consideration of a code of practice for the board of directors and its committees as well as the process of appointing appropriately qualified and skilled persons to the role of director of a Catholic academy company.

Finally, there is a section that deals with ‘supported academy conversion’.  Supported academy conversion is an alternative to ‘sponsored academy conversion’, which applies when the DfE / Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) and the Diocese agree a school needs to become an academy (i.e. must become an academy).  The section offers guidance on how the Board of Directors sets up a School Improvement Partnering Agreement, and employs a School Improvement Challenge Partner and a Monitoring Inspector Partner to carry out delegated tasks on their behalf. It is certain that at least one diocese has rejected the DfE model of sponsored conversion whereby a sponsor takes on the right to appoint the foundation directors and control the academies, and agreed the model of ‘supported conversion’ with the DfE directly. Whether or not such ‘local solutions’ based on diocesan policy and DfE pragmatism remain an option for the future is also debatable; agreements like this depend on political will balanced against ideological flexibility and diocesan determination to negotiate a deal that is in the interests of the Church’s mission and ownership of its schools.

It is also worth noting that the DfE issues advice for academy companies who wish to make a significant change to their existing arrangements. It includes information on what directors should do if they are considering expanding their academy. It also explains which sorts of changes will require a formal business case. The ‘business case guide’ sets out the type of information academy trusts should include in their business case to be able to make a significant change to their arrangements. CatholicLinks includes a section on making changes to an existing academy.

There is much debate in the public arena about academisation. There continues to be those who are strongly in favour or strongly against academisation. Academisation is not simply a matter of choice; government policy and educational legislation is changing the school place landscape of this country, and because the law is changing gradually rather than through the enactment of law at a particular moment in time, schools’ approaches to academisation are very different to the introduction of voluntary aided status in the 1944 Education Act. When Michael Gove introduced the Academies Act in 2010, and David Cameron spoke at the time of the 2015 General Election, both said they were committed to all schools becoming academies. Despite the option of choice for some schools, legislation and plans for legislative change are moving the goal posts in the direction of all schools being academies. Coasting schools and those giving cause for concern will be required to become academies. The majority of secondary schools are now academies. It is not impossible to imagine that at some point in the future there will be a legal requirement for all schools to convert, not least because no doubt the Department for Education will be finding it more demanding in time, effort and finance to keep two parallel systems of provision running indefinitely. It is worth noting that the momentous change to voluntary aided status by all diocesan Catholic schools (and some religious order schools) that was brought about by the 1944 Education Act took several years to bring to fruition albeit in advance of passing the legislation.

An example of public commentary,

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