Playtime is Over for Governors

Who will want to volunteer to sit on school boards in the harsh new education climate?

David Womersley

Last summer, I stepped down after 12 years as a governor of an independent school. My resignation was not provoked by any particular crisis. I’d enjoyed my involvement with the school, which all my children had attended and where they had been happy and well educated. But 12 years I thought was long enough. Time to let someone else have that pleasure, and that responsibility.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking, as I walked home after a very pleasant dinner and with my farewell cufflinks jingling in my pocket, that the business of being a school governor had changed a good deal during my period of office. An activity that had been, if not exactly amateur, then certainly informal, had in a comparatively short space of time become very professionalised.

The body I joined had what I think was, for the times, a fairly typical composition. There were several old boys of the school (it was a mixed school, but somehow only old boys had become governors). All the relevant professions — law, accountancy, finance, property — were represented. To begin with, there was also a clergyman, though that was quietly discontinued. A progressive touch, however, was the presence on the board of several women, in all cases former or current parents at the school. 

Business was conducted with scrupulous regard for formal propriety. But the atmosphere was overwhelmingly consensual. This made our meetings very pleasant. But looking back, I now think that it represented a subtle failure of governance. There was less challenge than there should have been. Another oddity, in retrospect, was that we didn’t talk much about education. Property, finance, pupil numbers, pensions, personnel issues — all these important matters were thoroughly discussed. But I can’t recall a conversation in which the primary and explicit focus was what should surely be the dominant question in any school, namely, “How can we maintain and improve the education we provide”? The unspoken assumption was that, as long as the estate was in good shape, the staff room full, the headmaster effective, the facilities improving and the bank balance healthy, a good quality of education would naturally follow. Excellent education was, it seemed, a by-product of conscientious governorship.

There were two reasons why we focused on the secondary rather than the primary. The first was the great, received truth of school governing, which is that the governors of a school must keep themselves to some degree apart from its day-to-day activity. This principle is usually summarised in a distinction between means and ends such as, “Governance is about identifying the ‘ends’ and management is about deciding the ‘means’ of achieving the ‘ends’ as defined by the board.” I’ll come back to the thinking behind this rule of thumb, for real difficulties surround actually putting it into practice, it is currently being eroded, and a genuine moral and legal hazard is arising as a result of that erosion. But for the moment it is enough simply to register how that principle acts to inhibit the governors of a school from taking too close an interest in what happens in the classroom. To do so, would be to risk trespassing on the domain of the headmaster.

But second, these years were a period of extraordinary growth in private schooling. More and more parents, it seemed, were eager to pay for their children’s education. With increasing demand chasing a comparatively inelastic supply, the inevitable happened. Fees went up, sometimes at an eye-watering pace. I don’t normally think of myself as a man of unshakeable rectitude, but when I recall some of the disinterested votes I cast in favour of fee rises when I was still a parent, I’m encouraged to view my moral character in a much more favourable light. Costs, at least to begin with, went up more slowly than the fees. What to do with the resulting surpluses? By far the easiest solution was to put up a new building or upgrade an old one. Schools quickly found themselves caught up in an accelerating arms race of facilities. Headmasters’ wish-lists were converted into realities with extraordinary speed.

If the parents by and large acquiesced in these developments funded by their fees, nor was there much debate on the governing body about the likely educational benefits to be produced by these expensive new facilities. It seemed self-evident that, say, upgraded art facilities would lead to a higher quality of artwork. No audit was ever carried out to see if this in fact turned out to be the case, although it would have been easy to assemble statistics of marks achieved in a particular subject at Common Entrance before and after a particular improvement, which would have provided at least a starting point for reasoned discussion.

But this was not of interest to governors, because the point of these facilities was not so much to improve the quality of the school’s output as to guarantee the volume of its input. These facilities were intended to catch the eye of prospective parents and to induce them to put their children down for this school rather than for its rivals. And in this governors did not miscalculate. Parents often seemed to choose between competing schools on the most superficial grounds. I suspect that, if school A had a 25-metre swimming pool, and school B only a 20-metre pool, then that might have swung it for the former with not a few parents. But I am not aware of any prospective parent in my time as a governor asking to observe a lesson, though there were plenty who came armed with a sheaf of questions about the bathrooms in the boarding houses.

Nothing grows to the sky. Three events brought this inflationary spiral in private education to a halt. In the first place, the Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the setting of school fees, which concluded that at least some schools were operating as a cartel, hit school governing bodies like a bucket of water thrown over two dogs. No matter that the logical response to the ruling would have been to put fees up the next year again by what had by then become the usual 7 or 8 or 9 per cent. Governing bodies everywhere flinched from the severe rationality of this counsel. Instead, they drew in their horns, and timidly suggested rises of 1 or 2 or 3 per cent — and by so doing of course confirmed that they had been, indeed, operating as a cartel. With such sub-inflationary increases, surpluses very quickly came under pressure. 

That emerging situation was made worse by the new Charities Act. Now schools were no longer “exempt” charities — that is to say, deemed to be charitable, and thus qualifying for the financial benefits which being a charity brings with it, simply in virtue of the fact that they served the undoubtedly charitable object of education. Now they had to demonstrate “public benefit”. For a long time, it wasn’t clear quite what this meant. Nevertheless, you would have had to be incurably optimistic to think that letting local residents use some of the school’s facilities occasionally during the vacations would be sufficient. Bursaries — that is to say, free or nearly free places for children from families unable to afford the fees — were plainly, if for a long time inexplicitly, what was needed. How were these bursaries to be paid for? A few — a very few — schools had substantial endowments which could be applied to this purpose. Others had either to raise the funds from benefactors, or — easier and therefore more likely — to shoulder the cost out of income. This immediately shrank the bottom line in the accounts. Many bursars must have looked up from remodelling their financial projections, glanced out of the window with regretful eyes at, say, their new performing arts centre, and nursed bitter thoughts about how many bursaries the funds it consumed might have paid for.

The third event was the general financial crisis of the past two years. The wholesale withdrawal of pupils feared by governing bodies and staff rooms did not occur. A number of parents on the edge of the bottomless pit of private education drew back, forfeited their deposits and sent their children instead to the local state school. Those already embarked kept going, more or less — parents will make extraordinary sacrifices to keep their child at a school where they are happy and thriving. But it was clear, without it needing to be said, that fee increases for the foreseeable future would have to be conspicuously moderate. And this too depressed, and will continue to depress, the level of surpluses.

So the current environment for school governing bodies is a complicated one. The financial weather is still cloudy, the legislative setting remains non-specifically menacing, and the traditional relationship between school governors and the headmaster has in recent years begun to shift in ways that cause concern. For as a result of the Charities Act in particular, governors have had to take a much closer interest than they did before in the day-to-day activities of the school. The line between setting ends (the province of the governors) and pursuing means (the province of the staff) has become increasingly muddied. The Guide for Governors published by the Independent Schools Council acknowledges that this is an area where theory and practice may be hard to reconcile. It is easy to state the respective jurisdictions of the governors and the head:

The Governing Body is concerned with aims, policies and plans. It looks to the Head to help formulate and then to implement them. Acting within that framework, the Head and his team manage and administer the school with the support of the governors.

But immediately it qualifies the simplicity of that formulation:

While this short statement of the respective roles of Head and governors is broadly true, in practice the relationship between the two can be a complex one…The line between management and governance cannot, however, be rigidly defined, and it will vary from one school to another and from time to time.

Flexibility is one thing, confusion another. While it is undoubtedly a good thing for governors and a head to work closely together, in the end their relationship crucially depends upon a clear separation of responsibilities. For how could a governing body dismiss a head for underperformance if they themselves have been active in management and administration, as well as the setting of policies and objectives? 

It is against this backdrop of financial challenge, legislative threat and changing practice that the legal liabilities of governors, long regarded for all practical purposes as pretty notional, suddenly seem alarming. Governors will put themselves at risk of personal liability if they act imprudently, and it is also the case that in an unincorporated school, the governors are jointly and severally liable — that is to say, the actions of an individual governor can bind the other governors. 

Aside from the cuts and the public spending review, almost the first policy of the Coalition government set to become a reality is the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s “free” schools. Small groups of parents, dissatisfied by the quality of state provision, are getting together to create their own schools. These schools will be state-funded but — the crucial point — free from local authority control. Each of these schools will need premises, staff and — less visible but nevertheless important — a board of governors. Over the next few months it seems likely that many people will become school governors for the first time. It is quite possible that some schools will have governing bodies made up entirely of novices. As they take their seats round the table at their inaugural meeting, these new governors may wish to look closely at those with whom they are embarking on the adventure of governing a school. 

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