In My Early Life, Winston Churchill said: “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested.”
Whether his observation, reflects well on headmasters, or poorly on political leaders, few would suggest that the balance looks or feels the same today.
Whilst the responsibility for the education and wellbeing of young people is an awesome one, very few headteachers would feel it is one they shoulder without considerable input from regulators, government or the wider community. In today’s world, few would wish to be left entirely alone.
When it comes to schooling, the independent sector is never far from debates. Nevertheless, one of the most overlooked aspects of independent schools is the way they are run.
Headteachers retain a substantial degree of freedom, matched only by the independent oversight of their governing board. They will lead strategic changes to the curriculum, school estate, qualifications offered, and possible boarding and nursery provision, making the role a discrete one from local authority colleagues.
Most independent schools are run by a board of governors. They are not only the directors of limited companies, but charity trustees responsible for all aspects of management and scrutiny.
Governing boards are the formal employers of teachers (and heads); it is they who are required to uphold duties such as GIRFEC, aimed at ‘getting it right for every child’ or the Prevent duty which seeks to protect young people from radicalisation. Among other regulatory bodies, those governors are answerable to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator as trustees. That has been a key role in ensuring compliance with the charity test that originated at Holyrood and is the toughest such test of public benefit in the world.
Schools, and trustees, have an onerous task in ensuring that means-tested fee assistance and other means of cooperation and support, are maximised and in keeping with the legislation’s spirit.
In England, both maintained and independent schools have school boards of some form. Irrespective of the ethos or legal status of the school, or the exam body of choice, this allows expertise and best practice to be shared.
In Scotland, awareness of autonomous governance is less widespread, precisely because only four to five per cent of schools have such a model.
The independent sector is so named for its autonomy, not any perceived sense of distance. Governing boards provide for a wide range of individuals to contribute their time and expertise. They may be drawn from parents, alumni, educationalists and child-care experts, local institutions and professions, and the wider community.
Is there an opportunity – as the government looks at governance in local authority schools – for professionals in Scotland to share their experience and best practice to the benefit of all?
John Edward is the director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, www.scis.org.uk