The puzzled parents' guide to choosing a well-governed school.

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The Independent Online
After a series of high-profile confrontations between parents and school governors, parents are realising that as well as evaluating a school and the head, they also need to assess the governing body. Only then can they safely decide whether or not to invest considerable sums of money, or more importantly their child's formative years in a school.

Most school governors work conscientiously and professionally to support a school and its head. However, among others there is a malaise which affects both state and independent schools.

But how does a parent who is intent on choosing a school for their child ensure, as far as possible, that the school is well governed? There are some key pointers to look for.

l Find out how many heads the school has had recently. This is a good measure of stability. For example, there are two competing girls' schools in one part of the country where one has had six heads in 12 years, the other has had five heads in more than 100 years. It is no accident that some schools seek to differentiate themselves from others with more rapid turnover when advertising for a replacement by making statements such as "the current head is retiring after 15 years of distinguished service".

l Establish who is on the governing body and for how long they have served. An ideal mix of skills includes general management, educational experience (representing junior and senior schools, and higher education), and specialisms such as art, science, property, finance, marketing law and accountancy. In state schools parents are already enfranchised; this is rarely so in independent schools. Serving heads are particularly important in ensuring cross-fertilisation at the highest level, and in providing a knowledgeable and critical "friend". In state schools, teachers can vote for their own representatives on the governing body. In the independent sector, staff are often prevented from joining a governing body because, under charitable legislation, trustees are not allowed to be salaried employees. There are ways around this problem. Having executive directors (the school's senior managers) working with non-executive directors (other governors) could lead to more informed decision-making.

l Check the constitution. A good constitution will ensure that cosy insularity is not perpetuated by imposing a maximum length of service.

l Try to get a feel for how decisions have been made in the past. Accounts should show whether the financial management is sound, or whether reserves have been depleted with little obvious reason. Some schools now automatically put up to 5 per cent of income towards building investment - this should avoid some of the pain of eternal fund-raising.

l A good quality chairman is essential. A good chairman has saved a school on occasions, and this is the key appointment.

As schools face increasingly complex problems, the amateur nature of their governance becomes more obvious. This has been encouraged by local management of schools and, in the independent sector, by the prevalence of self-elected and unaccountable bodies.

The real problem lies in the fact that the appeals system in both sectors is difficult to unravel, if it exists at all.

Whatever individual solutions schools devise, on a national level this problem cannot satisfactorily be resolved until an external ombudsman is appointed. The lack of a proper appeals system works against the principles of natural justice.

The writer is a former headmistress. She is now an education and business advisor and a school governor.

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