Whitehall Park School is a proposed Free School for the London Borough of Islington. The proposers are a for-profit company, Bellevue Ltd, who run a number of fee paying schools, both in the UK and Switzerland. The main shareholders of Bellevue are a hedge fund based in Zurich. It is to be located on the old Ashmount School site in Islington. See more here
They recently advertised for Governors: (Closing date for applications: 6pm Friday 24th January 2014. -Interviews: Early February 2014, so readers of this blog have missed their chance).
In their ad they wrote:
"Our school will be from the community, for the community, governed by the community"
Does anyone see any irony in a company controlled by a Zurich based hedge fund, talking about the school being "from the community, for the community, GOVERNED BY THE COMMUNITY"?
They further write:
"To strongly support excellence in teaching and learning, two of the fundamental elements of the success of Whitehall Park School will be the strength of its governance and its links with the community. This cannot happen without your help."
(The context for this is their observation in briefing meetings that the new Free School believes in involving parents and the community unlike (they say) other local state financed schools described as being "under the control of Labour Islington")
The Role of the Chair at Whitehall Park School:
They then provide a detailed role description for the job of Chair of Governors and list the desirable qualities for candidates for appointment as chair. The job description and key abilities required need not be repeated here as they are broadly the standard ones from DfE guidance, except for a crucial point which they highlight as the first line in the job description. The Chair is to be:-
"Accountable to the Trust Board"
And not to the Governing Body they chair. So not only will the chair be appointed by Bellevue, rather than, as in Community Schools, elected by the Governing Body, the chair is also formally accountable to Bellevue and not to the Governing Body. Now this really matters as the Chair of Whitehall Park School, in the usual way of Chairs of state school Governing Bodies has been given power of "Chair's action".
As DfE guidance explains:
" The chair or vice-chair has the power to carry out functions of the governing body if a delay in exercising a function is likely to be seriously detrimental to the interests of the school, a pupil at the school or their parents, or a person who works at the school."
Which is a pretty important power, especially when the full Governing Body meets only three times a year - (a common interval, and the one Bellevue have said they will adopt).
In my own experience as Chair, uses of Chair's action always had to be reported to the Governing Body as quickly as possible (email good for this) and then formally noted at the next full Governing Body meeting which had the power to rescind it if they wished. Being accountable to the Governing Body in this way was an important check on the Chair, and I was always aware of it. I was also subject to annual election.
The Whitehall Park Chair also has this power of Chair's Action but is accountable for its use to Bellevue and not the GB, which has no power to rescind. And Bellevue appoint the Chair anyway. Who between thrice yearly Governing Body meetings can take Chair's action on any matter within the GB's remit, and is accountable to Bellevue for this and not the Governors.
Perhaps its relevant that Bellevue have added to the usual duties of a Chair an additional one:
"The chair leads the governing body"
And no doubt, the person they appoint will.
THE OTHER GOVERNORS
Next they provide a detailed role description for the less demanding post of ordinary governor, which appears to cover not only the Governors they directly appoint, which, by law, is a majority of the Governing Body, but also any staff or parent representatives (Parents are allowed to elect two governors). This again is pretty standard except for the first line of the job description, which is not. It reads that governors are:
"Accountable to the Chair of the Governing Body."
So the Chair is accountable to Bellevue, and the Governors are all accountable to the Chair. So all quite nicely tied up then.
But there is more.
" All governors are expected to meet the Seven Principles of Public Life, defined by the Nolan Committee in 2013" And who could disagree with that?
Finally they write:
"The appointed candidate will need to receive Department for Education (DfE) approval from an Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS (E)) clearance check (no cost), plus additional checks from the Trust (Bellevue Place Education Trust) to ensure candidate’s views align broadly with that of the Trust’s."
But nowhere do they say what the Trust's views are that the candidates views are to "align with"
Does anyone have any suggestions as to what these "views" might be? And also is there any possibility that this might limit the independence of governors? Is there any conflict with the first Nolan principle?
("Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.")
And, in particular, where does this leave elected parent governors who are it seems, only to be acceptable, if their "views" "align" with that of a foreign owned commercial company?
And who are to be "accountable" to the Chair and not their constituents?