Independent schools: governance, autonomy, independence

Written by John Edward on 2 March 2017 in Comment

Associate feature: Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested, writes John Edward, director at the Scottish Council of Independent Schools

Associate feature on behalf of the SCIS

Whether Winston Churchill’s observation, in “My Early Life” 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 head teachers would feel it is responsibility they shoulder without considerable input from regulators, government or the wider community.

Nevertheless, one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of the independent school sector is the way they are run.


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Head teachers retain a substantial degree of freedom, matched only by the independent oversight that their governing board provides. In return, it is they who will lead strategic changes to the curriculum, school estate, qualifications offered, possible boarding and nursery provision, etc. making the role of an independent school head a discrete one from their local authority colleagues.

Most independent schools are run formally by a board of governors. As such, they are not only the directors of limited companies, but charity trustees responsible to for all aspects of management and scrutiny that such a status requires. Governing boards are the formal employers of teachers (and heads); it is they who are required to uphold duties such as GIRFEC or Prevent; it is governors with whom, on those rare occasions, teachers are legally in dispute with during industrial action.

In England, both maintained and independent schools have school boards of some form. This allows for the sharing of expertise and best practice when heads sit on the boards of other schools, whether in local authority control or independent.

In Scotland, awareness of autonomous governance is less widespread, precisely because only 4-5% of schools have such a model.

An independent sector is called as such for its autonomy, not any perceived sense of distance or isolation. That autonomy is evident in every decision a school makes for the young people in its charge.

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