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Understanding the Revised Governance Handbook

on Tuesday, 26 January 2016.

The revised Governance Handbook (the New Handbook), was published by the Department for Education (DfE) on 26 November 2015.

It replaces the previous Governors’ Handbook which was issued in January 2015. This was a major rewrite, in which the DfE has set out its vision and priorities for effective school governance.

The New Handbook is shorter, and focuses more on multi academy trusts (MATs) and Trustees (as well as traditional, local governing bodies). Alongside updated references to new legislation and guidance, the New Handbook sets a firm link between itself, the Academies Financial Handbook and other statutory guidance, including Keeping Children Safe In Education, and the Prevent Duty.


The New Handbook places greater emphasis on:

  • the principles of effective governance
  • the DfE's preference for MATs / federations over single schools / academies
  • the effective recruitment of trustees / governors using skills based criteria
  • the need for trustees / governors to have a better understanding of educational / financial data (and for training if they do not)
  • the need for trustees / governors to ask the 'right questions' and provide a strong system of accountability
  • trustees' / governors' charitable and corporate duties
  • the use of independent external reviews
  • the importance of transparency in relation to governance structures

Key Points to Note

The New Handbook suggests that 'growth beyond three schools usually represents the first real need to overhaul governance arrangements',  and this is a running theme throughout. There is a clear preference for MATs operating approximately 10 schools, and the Handbook repeatedly refers to the benefits that joining a MAT could bring to a group of schools.

The New Handbook recommends that all schools should have a School Improvement Plan, and there are updated example questions that an effective board should be asking of its Head(s).

All trustees / governors should be able to engage fully in discussions about data regarding education and financial performance, and undertake training if this is not the case.  MAT boards should not leave this function solely to local governing bodies.

The New Handbook suggests that as MATs grow, boards should think about using a central team to help analyse pupil progress and financial performance data, and use standard templates to present data from each school in the MAT.

There is a preference for smaller skills based boards, and for continued self evaluation, as well as a new requirement that all boards publish up to date details of their governance arrangements on their school website. This requirement cross refers to the Academies Financial Handbook requirement for all academies and MATs to publish their scheme of delegation for governance functions.

Crucially for schools considering a change of structure, the guidance states that an objective, independent, external review of board effectiveness should be undertaken before any significant change occurs eg conversion to academy status, or growth of a MAT.There are more comprehensive details about the potential structures for the governance of schools, with revised information on the size of single maintained schools and federations. The guidance has been changed to say that 'employees of the Trust cannot be appointed as members'  whereas before it stated they 'should not'.

The finance section notes that trustees / governors in the context of MATs may be paid, but this should be for a fixed task within a time limited period.

There are new sections on conduct (the Nolan Principles of public life), taking account of parental views and statutory duties under charity and company law.

The section on staffing has been updated to take account of the changes that have been made to pensions and recruitment guidance, which HR Managers should note.  Other regulatory changes are also detailed, and include, for example, the requirement for Secretary of State consent to dispose of land.

What to do next?

  • The New Handbook repeatedly refers to boards and trusts, as well as directors, members, governors and executive teams, which may lead to confusion. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, it's important to address this by undergoing appropriate training, so that there is clarity as to your structure and responsibility for performing these functions.
  • All trustees / governors should read the New Handbook and be familiar with the changes, especially the new sections on conduct and statutory duties.  Schools should consider a skills audit to establish whether any training is necessary, or whether there are any 'gaps' in the board's approach.
  • MATs with articles of association that allow employees to be members should consider reviewing this practice in light of the strong stance against this in the New Handbook.

If you are concerned about any aspect of the New Handbook or feel that it is time to review your governance structure or scheme of delegation, please contact our Academies specialists Jaime Hobday on 0121 227 3703, or Con Alexander on 0117 314 5214.

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