With all the publicity that has surrounded St Benedict's over the last few days, it has been hard to credit the extraordinary goings-on at St. Augustine's Priory School. The following has come from a number of impeccable sources. For obvious reasons, I am not going to say who.
The School currently has no Board of Governors. With the possible exceptions of Dr Dowling-Branagan and Mrs Kendall, the Trustees have told all the Governors that they have not been "confirmed in office" by the trustees.
It appears that they received a letter from Mr Murphy to the effect that he required them to sign a letter promising to adhere to the Instrument of Governance before they could be confirmed. This has apparently never previously been required, and Governors of any school by definition have to act within their defined powers as governors. In phone conversations between them, I understand that the governors decided to wait until their meeting on November 9th and discuss the issue there before deciding whether to sign.
Mr Murphy arrived at the meeting with a solicitor in attendance. He handed out a letter to the governors. The letter was threatening in nature and required them to sign to agree the terms of the instrument of government immediately, or the governors' meeting could not continue. A very stormy meeting followed, and there was no resolution. Mr Murphy made it clear that the governors' meeting could therefore not take place and that he required them all immediately to leave the premises. They requested to remain while they discussed matters, as private individuals if necessary.
Mr Murphy was adamant. One of the governors pointed out that they had been invited in not by Mr Murphy by by the headmistress, and it was for her to withdraw the invitation. Mr Murphy remained adamant, and said that if they wished to continue their conversation, they must do so in the car park. It was a remarkably petty demand on his part.
The governors in further discussions amongst themselves over the next couple of days concluded that it would be better to sign the letter and then to be able to get on with the urgent business of the arrangements to recruit the new headteacher. However, it seems that Mr Murphy is taking the view that this is not sufficient, and that a decision of the trustees is now needed to confirm them in office, and that a decision on this point has not yet been made.
So, the current situation seems to be that there is no quorum of Governors at present, so in effect there is no Governing Body.
This for all practical purposes renders aspects of the school's safeguarding policy inoperative, because there is no suitably trained Safeguarding Governor to oversee it. The Complaints procedure is also inoperative, because there are no Governors to hear any complaints.
Some of the (former) governors have informally met with staff to appraise them of the situation. There has been a staff meeting attended by Mr Murphy at which he was by all accounts robustly questioned.
This is not the first time this term that Mr Murphy has interfered with the decisions of the governors operating validly within the areas of responsibility delegated to them by the Instrument of Governance. Earlier this term, it came to the attention of the governors that Mr Mason had requested of an IT technician passwords to staff email accounts, and that the technician in all good faith had provided them. On learning of this, the governors suspended both of them while the school computers could be re-secured.
It seems that Mrs Gumley Mason appealed to the Trustees and that Mr Murphy advised the governors that he was taking over the matter and that the Governors no longer had any part to play. Apparently the Instrument of Governance allows for this to happen if the headteacher appeals to the Trustees. The governors threatened to resign unless the issue was returned to them since it fell squarely within their delegated responsibilities. Mr Murphy backed down.
This latest action by Mr Murphy seems to me to be highly irresponsible, As I understand it, the diocese and the ISI have been informed and the DfE is going to investigate. These actions are damaging the Charity's reputation and may potentially damage the charity's income, if parents decide that enough is enough and take their children away from the school. And most importantly they are putting in jeopardy the charity's ability to fulfil its charitable objectives, the education of the pupils.
It is worth noting that Lord Carlile's principal recommendations for St Benedict's concern its governance. Carlile has noted that the St Benedict's governance arrangements are that all decision-making powers are in the hands of the board of Trustees, that all the trustees must be monks of Ealing Abbey, and the chairman of trustees is the Abbot. There is a Board of School Advisers, which in fact makes recommendations and decisions in much the way that a Board of Governors might be expected to, but that in fact the BSA has no powers, and the Trustees can ignore any decision or recommendation from the BSA if they choose to.
Lord Carlile described this arrangement as "wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable". What strikes me is how close it is to the arrangements currently in place for the governance of St Augustine's. Admittedly the St Augustine's Trustees are not monks, but in all other respects, the comparison is very close, in that there are two boards, one of which has delegated some powers formally or informally to the other, but which can be taken away at any time and for any reason.
The existing argument shows how very unsatisfactory those arrangements are in the event of a disagreement between the Governors and the Trustees.
Lord Carlile has recommended that other independent faith schools should review their governance arrangements, and that his proposals (essentially of a single governing body with a wide range of experience, and a lay chair and lay majority) are meant to be broadly appropriate for all independent faith schools, of all religions and denominations. Certainly, his recommendations should be studied by St Augustine's.
I suspect that the argument is in fact over who has control over the
appointments process for the new headteacher. That is the most important
decision that the school needs to take in the immediate future, and it
would seem that the Trustees are alarmed at the approach to the matter
being taken by the governors.
But at the moment, it doesn't matter in the slightest who has control of the process. I cannot imagine that any competent headteacher would be prepared to take up the post amidst such a shambles. Any prospective headteacher worth his or her salt is going to do some research on the school, if only by typing the name of the school into a search engine to see what comes out. What on earth would anybody think about the recent goings-on at St. Augustines? There's not the slightest point in wasting money on placing an ad for the new headteacher until the present crisis is amicably resolved and some stability is restored. That means getting the governing body back in place, hammering out an agreement concerning an appointments panel for the headteacher, and agreeing that the Instrument of Governance needs to be reviewed and amended, probably to merge the two boards and have a single governing body so that these kinds of deadlocks cannot happen again.
The sooner this happens, the better for the children. They are the ones who matter here. I hope that everybody concerned will remember that.