Governing the future

Governors play a crucial role in a school’s success, says Mark Peel

While heads and the teaching staff are the public face of independent schools, behind them lurking in the background is the governing body. Most of its members are relatively unfamiliar but they play a crucial role in determining the success of a school for aside from having the power to appoint and dismiss a head, they authorise expenditure, fix salaries and set fees.

Until recent times, it was customary for most governing boards to be composed of the good and the great – bishops and generals, eminent alumni and Oxbridge academics – many of whom remained remote from the hurly-burly of school life. 

An exception to this rule was Eton, since it was one of the best-run schools in the country, the staff assiduously represented on the governing body by David Hurst QC. In an age when efficiency and cost effectiveness became ever more important, the lack of managerial competence on the board was a serious failing.

“The extraordinary bumbling manner in which some independent school governing bodies conduct their affairs would bankrupt an industrial company in months,” John Rae, the former headmaster of Westminster, told a gathering of preparatory school heads in September 1989. Too often the governors’ selection of a head was a haphazard business and their treatment of staff, intentional or not, appeared detached at best and condescending at worst.

As boarding schools in particular continued to struggle with escalating costs and falling rolls, most governing bodies learnt to adapt to new commercial realities. Not only did their composition become more diverse – more women, more outsiders and more businesspeople – they became more proactive and better trained for the specific responsibilities they now undertook. With capital development ever more important, power within the governing body has shifted towards the executive committee comprising chartered surveyors, corporate lawyers and financiers, and they work closely with the bursar- now, more often than not, a trained chartered accountant. Not only have the school’s public relations, marketing and fundraising been placed on a more secure footing, the business has also been expanded by increasing the roll (where possible) and letting out facilities during the school holidays.

Special efforts have also been made to select the right head by using head-hunters and making the interviewing process more sophisticated so that botched appointments are rarer than before, and establish better relations with the staff by working more closely with them.

Judged by the remarkable expansion of top-flight facilities over the last several decades and the significant improvements in accommodation, food, comfort, safety and teaching, governing bodies should be commended for their dedicated professionalism. Yet while many independent schools offer an unprecedented standard of education that stands comparison with the world’s best, the price has been a high one – literally, as fees have continued to escalate, pricing many of the professional middle class out of the market. This in turn has been particularly detrimental to many schools in less affluent areas such as the Midlands and the north of England where reputable establishments such as Liverpool College and Bradford Girls’ Grammar School have been obliged to join the state sector as academies or free schools, or close, the fate of St Bees.

At a recent seminar on independent education in London, Barnaby Lenon, the chairman of the ISC, said that governing bodies hadn’t asked the question: what would happen if they were to reduce fees?  The few schools that had done this had been rewarded with increased demand. The corollary to reduced fees is of course cutting costs and Mr Lenon contended that schools needed to consider larger classes, especially since OCED data shows that small classes are a relatively low determinant in attaining good exam results. Other economies under consideration include: eliminating some minority subjects, reducing the number of promoted posts, cutting the number of staff, both teaching and non-teaching- and efficiency savings in catering, IT and publicity.  Of course none of these options are enviable ones- additional staff, after all, help provided the variety of extra-curricular activity and individual attention that define the independent sector- but the alternative could be a stark one, especially now that many state schools are providing greater competition.

One of the great strengths of the independent sector has been its ability to adapt to new challenges throughout the ages; now it must do so again and this time it will be the governing bodies who will take ultimate responsibility.

Mark Peel is author of ‘The New Meritocracy- A History of UK Independent Schools 1979-2015. [Elliot and Thompson, 2015.]    

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