No longer a private affair

It's time independent schools were made more accountable, argues Sue Macdiarmid

Parents whose children go to independent schools get a raw deal when it comes to being involved in school governance because they are deprived of much of the information that is available, by right, to their state school counterparts.

Only a handful of independent schools make room for parent-governors, there is no annual governors' meeting for parents and the inspection process is opaque. There is, for example, no compulsory meeting between inspection team and parent body, and parents have no right to a full copy of the inspection report. Both are available to state school parents.

As we approach the millennium, there has been a fundamental shift in the understanding that we, as individuals or members of all kinds of organisations, accept the desirability and need for openness and accountability in all aspects of governance. Such openness, we understand, encourages trust and confidence between the constituent groups of any organisation, promoting cohesion and a shared common purpose.

All would agree that the independent sector must, for its own credibility, operate a high-quality inspection, where all aspects of the school are scrutinised. We understand that this will include obvious areas, such as standards of teaching, or curriculum choices. These days, however, it must include more: standards of internal management, competence in decision-making, and "governance" of, and effective authority within, the school.

In their recent article in the education pages of the Independent (20 June), Tony Evans chairman of the Headmaster's Conference, and Margaret Rudland, chairwoman of the Girls' School Association wisely advise colleagues that a public meeting between inspectors and parents is desirable. As they say, any such experience has to be understood by professionals and clients (ie. parents) as a positive opportunity to examine and evaluate the development of the school. Similarly, they advise that parents should receive a summary of the report, rather than its entirety. Many would agree that it is only too easy for reports to be made bland prior to public consumption, with the contentious issues lost in a desire for acceptability.

So far so good. The problem is that in the independent school sector, none of this takes us very far, especially when compared with the provision for parental involvement in the maintained sector. An Ofsted Section 9 school inspection within the state sector legally requires that all parents be invited to a meeting with the inspectors, at which no member of staff (unless themselves a parent) can attend. Further, a summary of the report is published, and available to all. The full copy is available for purchase.

In the independent sector, such action is merely a suggestion, and does not mean that it will necessarily happen.

The issue of independent school inspection thus has much wider implications than whether it is actually any good: it is about the accountability of the organisation, in this case an independent school, firstly to its clients - the parents. (Dare we use the word shareholder - in other contexts, this would be an appropriate description of the long-term relationship parents have with schools, of any kind.) And, secondly, it is about accountability to others in society, since we all have a stake in the education of future generations.

The HMC is rightly concerned with ensuring that everybody outside of it understands its genuine attempt to be rigorous and fair in its self- appraisal. But many of us parents within the independent sector would like to suggest some further good-value PR - making the schools accountable in a way that is already the law of the land in the public sector.

I raise this point with specific reference to a situation some months ago at Dulwich College, where the governors forced the resignation of the headmaster in the most inexplicable and unacceptable manner. Parents, who wrote in their hundreds to complain about the governors' handling of the matter, (the head was cleared of an allegation of sexual harassment, but was made to resign as his position had become untenable) never had a reply, or a satisfactory explanation of their decision.

It will be interesting to see what observations the HMC inspectors make of Dulwich College's management in October. It is, however, no comfort for parents to learn that insiders already consider it likely that such problem areas will be "fudged" in the aftermath of these events.

The issue here is not just the example of Dulwich College, unjust as it clearly was, because it happens elsewhere at other times. The headmistress of Malvern School for Girls was recently dismissed and the likelihood is that the school will be expelled from the GSA. The issue is more to do with the unchecked power of an independent school board of governors to act in a way that is wholly unaccountable to others.

Unlike the maintained sector, they are not elected or appointed by others. They appoint themselves from among their own. Parents often mutter as to why there should be an over-representation of elderly military, church and academics on governing bodies. There is no answer except that it has always been so. There is no legal requirement for governors to meet parents once a year to explain their decisions and there is no access by parents to the chairman - both are legally required in state schools.

As well as the above, the really important recent change in the 1944 Education Act for state schools has been the requirement that at least two parent-governors be elected by the parent body. This, of course, is not the same thing as having "old boys" sitting on boards who may have a child attending the school. Elected governors imply public scrutiny of otherwise private boards. They change the climate in which decisions are made, away from secrecy and unaccountability, towards openness and access to others. This is important. It is happening everywhere else in society except in independent school boards of governors.

Most independent schools continue to resist the change, including Dulwich College, pleading that the terms of their charitable trust status preclude this. In reality, it is only that employees of the trust cannot participate. One might reasonably ask, who better to protect the interests of the trust than elected parent-governors, bearing in mind their decision to invest their money in supporting it? Some brave schools, such as Benenden and Edinburgh Academy, have unilaterally made such changes to their boards, but they are still too few to have an influence on the many.

An important step might be for the HMC and GSA jointly to take the lead on this, and insist on all member schools adopting such measures as conditions of membership. How much better it would be for a voluntary code to be established, rather than being compelled to respond to changes in the law. After all, when the Labour Party finally comes up with a realistic and practical education policy about independent schools, where else would they start?

The writer is a parent with children at an independent school.

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