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Pay attention at the back: Parents will sacrifice a lot to get their children into private schools 

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.

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