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School says: ‘You’re hired’

07 June 2013

Christian values underpin the success seen at St Marylebone School, London, the TV personality Margaret Mountford tells Margaret Holness.

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 interest.

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 fortunes.

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 Governments.

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 building programme.

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 graft involved. 

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 established." 

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. . .

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