A letter was sent by the governors of St Augustine's to all parents on 19 September, and it seems that some changes are afoot.
Just before I proceed to the meat of the letter, let me just address some comments that have been made over the last few days speculating as to whether any governors have resigned. According to the Accounts to July 2010 as they appear on the Charity Commission website, the following governors were in place as of that date.
Brigadier D Cantley OBE (deceased December 2010)
Dr M M Dowling-Branagan BA, MBBCh
Mrs H Grewal BA
Prof A Hemingway
Mrs A B Kendall
Prof G Bennett
Apart from Brigadier Cantley, all the governors listed have signed the most recent letter, and in addition we now have Dr M Barnard, Mrs F Carey, Deacon A Clark, and Mrs C Phillips. So it seems that no governors have resigned.
The letter starts, as one might reasonably expect, by thanking Mrs Gumley Mason for her service. It then goes on to explain that an appointments committee has been set up to manage the appointment of a new headteacher, and that they may work with "external agencies" to get the highest possible calibre of candidate. All very good. The interesting thing is the composition of the appointments committee: Professor Bennett, Dr Barnard, Deacon Clark and Mrs Carey. All new governors appointed or elected within the last year or so. It would appear that there has been something of a changing of the guard, Professor Bennett being the longest-serving governor on the committee having been appointed during the 2009/10 academic year.
They then talk about the transition period. It seems that the announcement of Mrs Gumley Mason's departure has caught the governors somewhat by surprise, since they don't yet have a set of transitional arrangements to announce. It seems to me that the transitional arrangements will need to address two separate phases of the transition. Firstly, whether there are any particular arrangements that need to be made for the remainder of this term while Mrs Gumley Mason works out her notice, and then they will need to consider separately the period between the end of the calendar year and the appointment of the new permanent headteacher.
There are a few things that will need to be sorted out: the appointment of an acting head, the arrangements for support of the acting head by the governors and senior staff, the arrangements for safeguarding, since Mrs Gumley Mason is also the Designated Teacher for Safeguarding. But by and large, there should be no great difficulty over this - a school can manage without a headteacher for a short period in the event of the illness or absence of the head. Any strategic decisions can be deferred, or taken by the governors. And in the meantime, the heads of department and the heads of year get on with the tasks that they already know need to be done.
Then the governors go on to address the governance structure of the school. It is very interesting that they have mentioned this now. The ISI report published earlier this year mentioned shortcomings in governance, but it has taken until now for a committee to be set up to look at this. Again, the composition of the committee is instructive: Professor Hemingway, Professor Bennett, Mrs Philiips, Deacon Clark and a Trustee. Mostly new governors for this job as well, particularly including Prof Bennett, a professor of law. In my view, one of the first things that needs to be addressed is the frankly unhealthy arrangement of separate boards of Trustees and Governors. There seems to be far too much scope here for differences of opinion leading to one body attempting to impose its will on the other. It seems to me that a school of only 500 or so pupils doesn't really need two separate governing bodies.
Then there's a bit of motivational stuff about the future, where they at one point say that it is an opportunity for the school to move forward, and also say that it is a turning point for the school, which seems to be a bit of a contradiction - you can't be moving forward if you perceive the need to make a turn. Quite what they mean is anybody's guess, but I don't think we need worry greatly. It's common for letters from school governors to contain a bit of this sort of thing.
Lastly, the governors promise that this letter is the first in a series of more detailed communications aimed at keeping pupils, staff and parents as informed as possible. And that is very much to be welcomed.
Overall, this is a positive letter, it looks as if the governors are beginning to get to grips with the problems the school has had over the past 18 months or so concerning the ISI report and the school's woeful response to it. Much clearly still needs to be done, and I wish the governors all the very best in their efforts to achieve it.
Let me add one final point. The reason I have written about St Augustine's Priory School on this blog is solely because gross shortcomings in its safeguarding policies and procedures came to my attention. As soon as I am satisfied that this has been rectified, that the policies reflect best practice and are being thoroughly implemented, then I will wish the school well and cease to have any interest. On the other hand, if I think that the governors are backsliding in their efforts to ensure proper safeguarding at the school, then I will say so. My sole objective in all this has been the safety and welfare of the pupils
But it shouldn't have required all this bad publicity from me. Parents, staff and governors shouldn't have allowed the school to get into this situation in the first place. Once the school is made safe, you all have a responsibility to be vigilant in order to keep it that way. That job never ends.