APPLY for a post at St Marylebone School (SMS), in central
London, and at the interview you may find yourself face to face
with Margaret Mountford, Lord Sugar's former chief adviser on BBC
TV's The Apprentice. Why? Because, throughout her time on
the make-or-break reality show, Mrs Mountford was first a member
of, and then chaired, SMS's governing body. She joined in 1997, and
has chaired it since 2003.
She left The Apprentice three years ago, to spend more
time with old documents - she was awarded a doctorate in papyrology
last year - and, in March, presented a one-off TV documentary on
Pompeii. She has been a non-executive director of several
"household name" companies, but her position at SMS remains a top
She believes strongly that all children, not only those
surrounded with advantage, should be educated as far as their
abilities allow. She does not spell it out, but the implication is
that that does not happen everywhere.
A CAMBRIDGE-educated former corporate lawyer, Mrs Mountford owes
her TV profile to her long-term professional association with Lord
Sugar. But her introduction to SMS came from a friend, a member of
Westminster Conservative Association, who asked her to be a
local-authority representative on the governing body.
When her four-year term as a governor was up, the London
Diocesan Board for Schools asked her to stay on as a foundation
governor. She is neither an Anglican nor a regular churchgoer, but,
as the daughter of a Northern Irish Presbyterian minister, she is
certainly in tune with the school's Christian values. "If you
weren't, you couldn't do the job," she says.
She goes further, and suggests that SMS's overtly Christian
approach to every aspect of its work is largely responsible for the
multi-faith, multi-lingual school's remarkable success. (More than
one third of pupils qualify for free school meals, and yet it is
one of the most sought-after schools in the country.)
Mrs Mountford shares this view with SMS's legendary head
teacher, Elizabeth Phillips, who had been at the helm for several
years when Mrs Mountford first became a governor. By then, Mrs
Phillips had already put the girls' secondary modern school turned
comprehensive back on track, after a temporary decline in its
THE key to a successful school is a good partnership between the
head and his or her chair of governors, the official OFSTED advice
says. Both blessed with Thatcher-like drive and energy, Mrs
Phillips and Mrs Mountford are natural partners, and the mutual
respect is evident. Between them, they have overseen a rolling
programme of reform and school improvement, taking advantage of
every initiative and opportunity offered by successive
One of only a handful of schools to be awarded three
simultaneous specialisms in the performing arts, maths and
computing, and special needs, SMS was one of the first to take up
the Teach First programme.
Since 2010, it has kept up with the pace of the present
Government's reforms. A recognised centre of expertise, it was
among the first cohort of Teaching Schools. Last year, it became a
self-governing academy; this year, it sponsored St Marylebone
Bridge School, a Free School for children with speech, language and
communication difficulties, due to open in September. These
developments have been accompanied by a multi-million-pound
With her legal and business background, Mrs Mountford has
steered much of this development. "We've benefited enormously from
her experience, and the time she spends in school," Mrs Phillips
says. Schools can only expand on this scale, however, if the whole
governing body shares the vision and - crucially - accepts the hard
EXPERT at picking winners, Mrs Mountford sees an ability to take
the job seriously, and to put in the hours, as essential qualities
for any governor, anywhere. "They also need to take a view, speak
up for it, and be unfazed by the mountain of paperwork all
governors receive," she says; or, of course, by the responsibility
of allocating large budgets. This year, the school has about £8
million to spend.
The full governing body meets twice a term, but sub-committee
meetings, which oversee issues as various as pay, building, staff
contracts, and the curriculum, are more frequent.
SMS has 21 governors, among whom are the Rector of St
Marylebone, two lawyers, a head-hunter, and an architect. She is
strongly opposed to the view, recently expressed by a Conservative
minister, that large governing bodies are unwieldy, and would be
more efficient if they were smaller. "We need the numbers. We've
now got so many and so varied duties that are easier to share among
a larger group, according to people's expertise or interests."
Moreover, she points out, having a breadth of perspective is
essential. "A parent governor may not take a long-term view, but
she or he alerts us to more immediate considerations."
As chair, she reckons to spend the equivalent of about a day a
week on school business - rather more when there is something going
on, as there usually is. It was certainly more when SMS was
converting to an academy, for example. The school took professional
legal advice, but did not, as many do, take on a paid
project-manager. Instead, with the support of the "excellent"
part-time clerk to the governors and other staff, Mrs Mountford
oversaw the process herself, and was closely involved in setting up
the Bridge School, which she also chairs.
Then, finding a new head to replace Mrs Phillips, who retires at
Christmas, swallowed up at least 50 hours, she calculates. "Every
minute was worth it, because we were determined to appoint a
candidate who could maintain the tradition she's
APPOINTING the right head, of course, avoids one of the most
obvious sources of conflict with governors. "It's unlikely to be an
issue here, but governors are ultimately responsible for standards
and taking an underperforming head to task. That would be a
difficult but unavoidable duty."
Does she agree with the idea, recently floated by the chief
schools inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, that at least some
governors should be paid? "I do think it's rather strange that a
state-school system can only operate if thousands of volunteers
give up long hours to the job. But, on the whole, I think not. It
could lead to a blurring of roles, and a lack of independence."
Although some businesses and organisations encourage employees
to become governors, and give them paid leave to do so, it is
inevitable, given the commitment required, that a high proportion
are retired, or partly so, and their length of service must
necessarily be limited.
Is her own retirement from the governors hovering? The idea
makes her smile. "Not at the moment. We're at a stage of
transition, and that's going to be interesting." Furthermore, she
says, while she sees being a governor as "giving something back",
she enjoys the insider's view of education which she would not
otherwise have had. And it gives her the right to a point of view
that she is keen to publicise.
I referred to St Marylebone Academy, and was swiftly corrected.
"That's not what we call ourselves. The children don't like it, and
neither do we. We don't think schools, like ours, that opt for
self-governing status because of the greater freedom it offers
should share the same title as failing schools forced to become
academies." That is an example of speaking up for a point of view.
Michael Gove, take note.
To return to the beginning, should you happen to meet Mrs
Mountford face to face, she is no ogre. For this interview, I did
my homework, sharpened my pencil, and turned up on time; but there
were apologies: interviews for an important appointment had
overrun, and she would be late. Twenty minutes later, we shared a
pot of tea, and a plate of chocolate biscuits. And we were off. .