Demystifying the trustee: Rupert Gather

For Trustees' Week 2021, we have produced a new interview series to demystify the trustee role to potential candidates. In this interview, Rupert Gather explains the trustee role and outlines why academy trust boards are so important.

In addition to his role as Executive Chairman for InvestUK - a Foreign Direct Investment platform which he founded - Rupert works pro bono for the Department for Education as an independent trustee specializing in change management, focused on improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged children.

He is currently Chairman of Challenger Multi-Academy Trust and an Interim Trustee of Bright Tribe Trust. 

What is the purpose of an academy trust board?

A trust board primarily has a statutory purpose, as it is a requirement for an academy trust to have an independent body charged with the oversight of the trust’s governance, finance and operations. The duties are very similar to that of a board of directors and many trustees will also have been directors of private companies so will be familiar with the kind of responsibility that it entails.

The terms ‘Trustee’ and ‘(Non-Executive) Director’ are interchangeable - I prefer the term ‘Director’ as it has a more authoritative feel to it. The role is a great privilege because the academy trust board has the power to change children’s lives by positive decision making and in the case of larger academy trusts this can impact the life chances of literally thousands of children.

The typical trust board is in a position of oversight and is setting policy to be implemented by an executive management team. There can sometimes be tension over a ‘scheme of delegation’, but generally the board works well as a team and it is incredibly rewarding making a real difference.

What made you want to volunteer?

I have had a strong belief in the importance of Public Service all my life. I joined the Army because of this and when I had built my own business to the point where I had a little financial independence, I wanted to continue this into volunteering. I looked at a number of different charity sectors to get involved in and luckily had some transferable and adaptable skills that could work in a number of areas. Ultimately, it became a balance of how much good I could make with the relatively small amount of time that I had available. I realised that education was the greatest and most fulfilling area. With hard work and commitment you can make a huge difference - I think I have directly impacted the life chances of 100,000 children across four academy trusts, and I can’t think of any other sector where that would be possible.

What does a good academy trust board look like?

A trust board should reflect its trust in terms of size and depth and breadth of experience. A small academy trust with one or just a few schools needs directors with generalist experience coupled with good local knowledge and independent minds to offer challenge as well as guidance. A typical small board would be 4-6 directors.

A larger academy trust could have a budget the size of a small PLC with potentially thousands of employees and tens of thousands of children. This is likely to need a larger board of ~10-14 members with a greater breadth of specialist experience. There would for example be specialist committees and a grasp of technical detail is important, as the directors will have less contact with the people and more with the data.

Above all the Chairman role is critical, setting the priorities of the board and bringing out the best in all the board members to ensure that it is not a mere talking shop but delivers positive change.

Have you gained leadership experience from volunteering in a different sector?

My experience comes from time in the Army that has a very organised, hierarchical culture that whilst very different in ethos and purpose shares a lot of the formalised governance processes and delegation structure, and the ability to work comfortably with people and read between the lines. I really loved my time in the army when I was overseeing training programmes for young soldiers and this gave me all the inspiration I needed to get into volunteering in education. I have combined this with a career in business and have sat on many boards from the slick and professional to the frankly dysfunctional, and one can learn as much from the latter as much as the former.

A fast moving decision based business background can lead to a bit of a culture shock - education moves at a slow pace with great attention to policies and procedures. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but it can be frustrating at times if one comes from a background where “action this day” is expected!

Have you a played a part in school improvement?

I chose to specialise in improvement as an Interim Trustee. I have chaired two trusts and been an Interim Trustee of a further two, all of which had real problems. The issues vary - most obviously it is an urgent need to raise educational standards, but this is often accompanied by financial mismanagement, and in one case really scary safeguarding issues. Much of the improvement I can deliver relates to structural, governance and financial accountability and often (although not always) educational improvement is best left to the educationalists. That said a director needs to know how to ask the right searching question to get to the bottom of issues. Some of these are quite difficult with no easy answers and can be picked up by familiarity with the data that is presented e.g. why do boys fare worse than girls? Generally, though it is the demonstrable improvement that makes the role so worthwhile.

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