What motivates business professionals to take on a board role in education?

Drawing on the experiences of over 1,400 non-executive directors, Academy Ambassadors’ Communications and Alumni Manager Sophie Taylor outlines what motivates business people and professionals to take on a board role in education.

First, some context on today’s education landscape. Academies are a relatively new phenomenon – in 2010, there were only 203 academies, set up as a measure to drastically improve failing schools typically in inner city areas. The Government granted academies funding, autonomous power and accountability to improve their own performance, and the programme was deemed a success. Later, the Government enabled schools that were rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted to choose to convert to academy status, allowing strong schools to manage their finances independently.

As the movement grew, academies began to consolidate into academy trusts allowing autonomy and accountability over multiple academies. The academy sector is a growing, devolved system of funding and accountability as opposed to finances controlled and distributed by the local authority. As such, the non-executive directors on the boards of academy trusts have a very important role as custodians of public funds.

There are now over 8000 academies across England, encompassing rural primaries, special schools and city-centre secondaries, educating over 3 million pupils.

School governors and academy non-executives

To date, school governors have typically overseen the performance and have often been appointed from within the local community, parents and staff, however, academy trust governance is a little different. An academy trust board is solely responsible for the academy trust’s finances, educational performance, strategic direction and clarity of values of the organisation. Academy trust non-executives are listed on Companies House and the Department for Education’s public database, and are legally accountable for the organisation.

What skills are needed?

On any board, good governance demands diversity of thought and experience. An academy trust board of educationalists will not have sufficient experience to scrutinise multi-million pound budgets, ensure company, charity and employment law compliance, evaluate executive remuneration, oversee safeguarding and maintain building standards across multiple sites. A diverse range of board-level skills is required to oversee the complexity of multi-academy trust governance and the trust will seek to use all board members’ different skills and experiences to build a fully-rounded board.

There are currently over 80 academy trusts seeking experienced business leaders to join their boards. Academy Ambassadors specialises in finding the business skills needed at academy-trust board level, including audit, law, finance, HR and marketing. The programme is funded by the Department for Education and recruits to boards across England.

What are the benefits of the role?

“I’m thrilled to put my legal and leadership skills to work for the benefit of the wider community. Uniting us all is a commitment to ensure great outcomes for children.”
Christine Wilson, Deputy General Counsel & Head of Legal at Homes England

I often hear from our network of non-executives the huge sense of personal satisfaction they feel from the role, using their skills and expertise in a new sector to make a positive impact on the next generation. The advantage of applying yourself in a new sector allows you to develop your skills and discover new ways of thinking.

But there are professional advantages too: members of our network have reported greater confidence in their own workplace, quicker progression to the company boardroom and broader knowledge of corporate governance standards. If you are looking to take that first step into holding a non-executive portfolio, an academy trust can be a great place to test the water.

A non-executive role in education offers business leaders and professionals the opportunity to be at the heart of transformational change within their communities. The driving purpose of the role is to ensure the future success of children and young people – there can be no greater mission than that.

“It is a really rewarding role and brings a whole new set of challenges that you just do not see in the corporate world”
Pamela Coles, Rolls Royce Company Secretary

What’s next?

Academy Ambassadors seeks experienced business leaders for a range of board roles across the country. Our team of recruitment and governance specialists are keen to help match you to a suitable role in terms of values and location. When thinking about applying for a board role, it’s important that you do your research. Would you prefer to be part of a trust with a focus on special educational needs or a faith trust or none of the above? Are the values of the trust aligned to yours? Is the time commitment realistic with your schedule? Are you looking for a steady first-time board role or something more challenging such as a financial deficit case? A good match to your values is crucial in underpinning an effective board role over time.

Good governance requires diversity of backgrounds, ideas, skills and experience to act together, corporately, in the interests of the children but they need to retain strong, independent thinkers who are able to provide a robust challenge. Diversity is critical.

We are always looking for more candidates, particularly people from underrepresented backgrounds and identities. Just 92% of appointed non-executives listed their ethnicity as white British* and 33% surveyed were female, which is a little higher than FTSE 250 non- executives**(29.1%) but there is still more to be done.

Find out more information or contact me directly to find out more.

*from 100 survey respondents 2019

**FTSE 250 data in 2018 taken from the Cranfield board report


Article by Sophie Taylor

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