Academy Trust Handbook 2021
Each summer the Academies Financial Handbook is revised and updated by the DfE in readiness for the forthcoming academic year. This time the document, which comes into force on 1 September 2021, has a new title – the Academy Trust Handbook – which could be said to reflect trusts’ increasingly broader responsibilities. The actual layout and headings in the handbook are very similar to the 2020 version, but there are changes and additions to the text. Although most of the changes to this 2021 edition are mainly pulling together existing school guidance from elsewhere, there are also a number of more significant additions. We summarise the key changes with reference to the relevant paragraph in the handbook:
- Academy trusts must now conduct section 128 checks for current and future members as well as for trustees (1.4).
- There is a specific requirement for academy trusts to reserve places for parents and carers in their governance structure. There must either be at least two positions on the trust board or at least two on each local governing board (1.11).
- The responsibility of trusts for safeguarding, health and safety and estates management is further emphasised (1.15 to 1.20).
- A new requirement from 1 March 2022 will mean that a newly appointed senior executive leader can only be a trustee if the articles of association of the academy or MAT allow their members to appoint that leader to the board (1.23).
- The DfE has stated a strong preference for academies to commission a regular external review of governance as a matter of routine. This should particularly be the case at times of significant change or if governance concerns arise (1.32).
- One of the most significant reforms is a requirement for trust boards to approach their regional schools commissioner whenever the senior executive leader is planning to leave the trust, whatever the reason for their departure. This is so that the future structure and recruitment options at the trust can be discussed (1.36).
- In future, the term ‘clerk’ will be known as the governance professional, in order to reflect the increased importance and breadth of the role (1.49).
- The handbook confirms that trusts must publish on their website the number of employees whose annual salary and benefits exceed £100,000. This emphasises the importance of including pension contributions in the calculation of employee benefits (2.32).
- The handbook re-emphasises the requirement that agendas, papers and minutes from all trustee, committee and local governing board meetings must be available for public inspection. This does not include confidential material (2.51).
- The finance committee chair should not also chair the audit and risk committee if these committees operate as separate bodies – separation is in any case mandatory for trusts whose income exceeds £50 million (3.10).
- An internal scrutiny must not be completed by a member of the senior leadership team, so that the scrutiny is seen to be independent or objective (3.15).
- Trusts should retender their contracts for external audit every five years (4.5).
- The term ‘financial notice to improve’ has been renamed a notice to improve to reflect the fact that improvement may be required to areas other than finance (6.18 to 6.22).
These changes have already come under some criticism. Concern has been expressed that some of the new requirements could undermine trust board autonomy, especially with regard to recruitment (1.36), voicing a suspicion that this may be a foretaste of a tighter government grip on academy trusts.
The three changes in nomenclature noted above have also been viewed as a possible sign that the ESFA will have a broader intervention role in future.
On the other hand, there is a general welcome for the encouragement of regular external governance reviews and the specific inclusion of places for parents on trustee boards or local governing boards.