The sudden departures of Helen Williams from her post as High Mistress of St Paul's Girls School in Hammersmith, west London; Nicholas Coates from The Hall prep school in Hampstead, north London; and Nigel Richardson from The Dragon prep school, Oxford - all after short periods in office - have prompted a flurry of anxiety about parental pressure on independent schools, and independent governing bodies in particular. Ministers could never have foreseen, it was argued, that the parent power they wanted to exploit in the state system would be felt most forcefully in private schools.
The recession threatens private schools as never before. Parents no longer feel stigmatised for being unable to pay fees, and withdrawal can be contagious. Moreover, the new grant-
maintained sector - opted-out state schools - presents serious competition. In such circumstances, aggrieved and chequebook-wielding parents cannot be ignored.
Jittery governing bodies are listening to parental demands. But how much say do most parents really have? Some observers talk of the system falling prey to the tyranny of parental cliques, with the majority of parents remaining in the dark as power struggles take place behind the scenes.
Mr Richardson, now a deputy headmaster at King's School, Macclesfield, Cheshire, says he enjoyed a 'massive outbreak of support' only after his resignation. In the months following his departure he has received 400 letters of sympathy, many from Dragon parents.
'There is no way most parents knew what anonymous, non-attributable pressure was being exerted behind the scenes,' he says. 'If you are a head and a group goes for you, then it is difficult to marshal support.' His attempts to change an old liberal regime had provoked resistance.
Failure of a new head to pacify senior staff in the present climate can have disastrous consequences. Mr Richardson says: 'If you were the head of a major company, you would probably bring in your own team. But senior staff in the independent sector tend to devote their lives to a school. They can be close to parents. Alliances can be made socially and become political.'
The parents most easily dissatisfied, he suggests, were those with older children who had been through the school, or with children in their last years - those most attached to the old regime and least likely to benefit from the new.
Peter Gummer, a director of Gabbitas Truman and Thring, the education consultancy, believes parents with long or family attachments to schools feel proprietorial: they are the ones most ruffled by a new head shaking things up to attract new parents. He believes they are also the ones most likely to use direct lines to governors.
'They can view the school as their property. In some cases they want the social exclusivity maintained, and don't take kindly to heads who want to do things differently. Parents who ask awkward questions are not necessarily asking the right questions. The only proper expression of dissent is through the head, but some parents are taking the cowardly way out.'
He blamed governors for responding to parental gossip and grievances aired on the cocktail party circuit, and for 'taking actions in panic they wouldn't have done five years ago'.
Should parents begin to ask whether they are fairly served by governing bodies? In large schools, governors preside over multi- million-pound budgets. They are guardians of the school's assets, land, buildings, endowments and investments. Parents should ask whether governors are being held accountable, and to whom, Mr Richardson says.
In public schools, which tend to be educational trusts or foundations by Royal Charter, governors are ultimately answerable to the Charity Commissioners; but they tend to be self-
perpetuating bodies of the great and the good - businessmen, solicitors, accountants, old boys and girls - people, says Mr Gummer, who 'tend to be appointed by somebody who knows somebody else', or invited friends of the chairman. In state schools, by contrast, the make-up of governing bodies is laid down by statute.
Changing the makeup of a private school's governing body in any major way is practically impossible. In former times of financial and social certainty the question never arose; but governors who were once happy to leave decision-making largely to heads are now causing turbulence.
How qualified are they to do so? Can they respond in an informed and accountable way to parental pressure, whether legitimate or not? Governors and trustees of public schools are by definition unpaid amateurs in the best and worst senses. As businessmen, financiers or captains of industry they are busy people in their own spheres. If they are retired, they risk being out of touch. Being trustees may be more important to them than they are to the school, especially in a time of contraction, when difficult decisions have to be made.
The long-term danger must be that fear of parental pressure through the governors' back door, on top of the other demands on heads - financial juggling, the national curriculum, redundancies, requirements of the Children Act (in the case of boarding schools) - will deter high-calibre candidates from applying for headships.
Already the sector is having to acknowledge a dearth of good applicants. Colin McGarrigle is retiring at Christmas, aged 51, after 10 years as head of Queen Margaret's School, a 360-strong girls' boarding school near York. The school expanded massively in the Eighties, though as with many other rural schools life is 'not easy' in the Nineties. Mr McGarrigle admits to 'longing for some fresh air' and intends to take some time out before looking for other jobs.
Where 10 years ago heads would have taken sabbaticals, now they just resign, he says. The sheer amount of paperwork and bureaucratic overload is acutely disheartening: 'As a head you seem to be spending more and more of your time in meetings. It's terribly easy to lose sight of what you are here for.'
Parents, he says, are ready to voice doubts, and some in the end are prepared to issue threats, going straight to governors. It takes a brave head to go out on a limb. Mr McGarrigle says: 'I've experienced the jungle drums, and that's acceptable to me.' But he believes modern governors should also be prepared to do a great deal of homework in support of the school - look at the balance sheets, know the law, understand the subtleties of the head's job - in order to take informed decisions.
Mr Gummer believes that many governing bodies are ill-prepared when choosing heads, using slack interviewing procedures: governors depend too much on getting 'the right man from the right school and the right university', and then expect the appointee to be all-singing, all-dancing.
The fact that governors have no real advisory service or channel of communication has been taken on board. Two years ago the Governing Bodies Association (GBA) and the Governing Bodies of Girls' Schools Association jointly published guidelines for governors, and they have introduced training seminars. The Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools has set up a working party to look into weaknesses in procedures for appointing heads.
Michael McCrum, chairman of the GBA and Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believes most governing bodies go to 'enormous trouble' in the appointment and support of a head, though the demands of the job are more 'tricky' than they used to be. He believes heads have overreacted and are overapprehensive after recent events. There has always been cocktail- party 'tittle-tattle', he says, and most governors treat it with caution.
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