Barnaby Lenon is Chairman of the Independent Schools Council. He is also Chairman of the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, and a Trustee at the New Schools Network and the King Edward’s School Birmingham. Previously he was Headmaster of Harrow School in northwest London, and of Trinity School Croydon.
Photograph by Martin Godwin.
What changes would you make to governors meetings to make them more effective?
Firstly, it helps if governors can be sent the papers well in advance of the meeting. If they only arrive a day or two before it can mean they haven’t really been read.
Secondly, there can be too many governors — you need to limit the size of the governing body if meetings are going to be effective.
Third, the Chair needs to avoid going over sub-committee issues already discussed elsewhere — that can be a huge waste of time.
Finally, I think its important that agendas aren’t too tightly prescribed — I’d like meetings to have a good amount of time when governors with important things to say are encouraged to raise issues other than those on the main agenda.
How has school governance changed over the last few decades?
The amount of work has increased hugely, partly because of Government legislation. School governance has just become more professional. For instance, inductions for new governors — that never used to happen; training for all governors; the idea governors should be appointed for their specific professional skills…
Schools are now required to have policies on many issues approved by the whole governing body. So there is a lot more for governors to do and think about than was the case in the past.
What is your biggest bug-bear around information going to governing bodies, and what would your perfect ‘board pack’ look like?
There is one significant problem: the volume of papers and the time it takes to read them.
What we need from those putting together papers is to keep them as short as possible and to flag key decisions. There needs to be a better sense of how this meeting is leading on from the decisions made in the last meeting. In simple terms, we need brevity and clarity, and writers shouldn’t feel they have to reiterate everything in their paper in the meeting itself.
What was the smartest business decision you made in your career in education?
At Harrow, where we wanted to keep fees as low as possible, the work I did to assist fundraising was very important. The decision to open three franchise schools in the Far East in my time was very important because that’s where a lot of bursary money can potentially come from.
What strategic questions should Independent School Governors be focussing on over the next 3–5 years?
They should be thinking about financial pressures, and a potentially difficult political future, coming down the road.
The employer’s contribution to teachers’ pensions might increase by 40% in September 2019. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister he will put VAT on independent school fees, and Charitable Status could be removed. These are three serious challenges.
The average independent school is quite small, so I would hope governors are thinking about the survival strategies available to them.
What can governing bodies at Independent schools and State schools learn from each other?
I would say one of the good things about independent schools is we don’t worry too much about inspections. In the state sector there has been an incredible focus on OFSTED inspections in recent years, which I think is a pity. Governors must be partly to blame for that — I hope that emphasis can be reduced.
Independent schools have been very bad compared to state schools at collecting data on pupil progress. Good state schools I know are regularly collecting and monitoring this data in a professional way, so I think we can learn from each other, for sure.
The most effective way to improve a school is to get the leadership team and governors to visit other good schools.
What is one message you would have for the Government or the general public about Independent schools?
That when I went to school, my fee was fully paid by the local authority, and that it would be a great help to our very good independent schools if there was just a bit of this kind of assistance.
It would be better if there was greater social diversity in independent schools, so it would be wonderful if parents whose children are having £6000 a year spent on them in the state sector could bring that money to an independent school. That would enable many children from lower-income homes to benefit from some of the highest-achieving schools in the country.
What book is on your bedside table?
Average is Over by the economist Tyler Cowen. It’s about the impact of Artificial Intelligence and technology on jobs and the economy in the United States.
What’s your Golden Rule?
Keep it simple.
I wrote a book last year called Much Promise about state schools which get extremely good GCSE results for disadvantaged pupils. Several of the Heads in those schools said ‘keep it simple’ was their rule, and I think that’s a really good rule, for board packs, schools in general, and maybe life. You have to keep a clear sight of the things that matter. The best Heads do that.