Sir Anthony Seldon is that rare educational beast: someone who has led a private school, a state school and a university. He was Head of Brighton College and then Wellington College; he went on to set up Wellington Academy, a free school, and ran that too; and he is now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s only not-for-profit private university and on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Oh, and on the side, he has managed to write the most authoritative biographies of the last four British Prime Ministers, as well as dozens of other books on contemporary history.

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How do you think an educational board differs from a corporate board?

Educational boards attract people with a less commercial mind. It’s less about sweating the assets and more about a sense of enrichment and wider development, with fewer quantitative measures. Although, of course, education has been, often to its detriment, reduced to quantitative measures...

If it’s a not-for-profit board, there are more regulatory controls and you’re dealing with minors and students. The regulations regarding students and mental health, child protection, Prevent, and data protection are far more significant.

How do a school board and a university board differ?

Universities are much bigger. There are 25,000 schools in Britain and about 200 universities. They have budgets that are ten to one hundred times the size. They are looking much more at acquiring fresh income – they are far more entrepreneurial in relations with industry for funding and with research bodies. So they attract a different kind of person. But they are similar in that they are looking at student experience, quality of learning and teaching, quality of provision of materials, the wellbeing and welfare of the students, issues of protection from abuse, exam performance, league table positions, the quality of the intake and the quality of the outtake and what the added value is, social breadth and social diversity and the differential performance of different social and ethnic groups within that institution. So there are similarities and differences.

How useful do you find it to have people from business on an educational board?

You need people from business. Universities are on one level businesses, in the operation of their financial structuring, the efficiency of income and spending, human resources, operation management, new buildings, contractors, assets, return on capital employed. So business people are enormously useful. Schools certainly need a much more businesslike approach in terms of use of resources and how to raise income, but they are relatively less important than in universities.

What other types of people from the outside world are good on these boards?

I chair the National Archive Trust, and I’m on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Clearly one needs a lawyer, a banker, a creative financier, an accountant, an HR specialist, a regulatory and compliance specialist, a data and digital specialist, a PR/media specialist, a building/property specialist, and an equality and diversity specialist. We all joke about how hard it is to find a black female on boards, and it can be, but boards obviously need to reflect every element of society and often they don’t. Boards also need to have a figure who is the still centre, who watches what goes on and is a critical friend to the chair, because many chairs get out of touch and lose sight of what’s going on. It took a long time for the RSC to get that balance of skills, and then as soon as we got it, we lost it! Boards tend to want to have famous, big-name people. Universities will want to have the CEO or chair of the local big company in the hope that they’re going to give them money. People tend to be appointed not on the basis of the grid but on the basis of being a good chap and being likely to give money.

Is there anything you’ve learned from other boards that you’ve been able to bring to this one?

I’ve noticed how poor most boards are, how little people read the papers, how dispirited the chief executives often become by the lack of engagement and lack of clarity that most boards have about why the board members are there. The board members are often told it takes a couple of days a year and actually it involves much more. There can be very little sense of cohesion. The chief executive is lonely and needs support and guidance and affirmation and it rarely comes. For many of us running schools, it would often be a kick in the teeth at the end-of-term governors’ meeting, and that’s because the board members are so busy on their own dynamics with each other and there’s very little cohesive sense.

The role of chair is very important and far fewer people are good chairs than those who think they’re good chairs.

So, what makes a good chair?

They have to have the time to do it. They also need emotional intelligence, academic intelligence, knowledge of the area the company’s involved in, and team-building skills. Where chairs have fallen down, it’s in those areas. On most boards, people hardly know each other, so they start off with an awkward atmosphere. Most are operating at about 20 or 30 per cent efficiency and effectiveness.

What would be your top tips for a new Vice Chancellor or head teacher?

You have to find out what the board expect of you, but that’s easy to say and very hard to do, because a board often doesn’t have a single view about it or the view changes. And if there’s a new Chair, they may come in with a new direction and will often want to rewrite the whole agenda for the sake of their ego or to reflect their own experience of life. You have to try to get the measure of what’s expected of you from those people who are responsible for your continuation in office. But you then need to understand what the potential for the organisation is. So Derby is not Bristol and Bristol is not Cambridge. The most important work occurs before you take up the job, when you are thinking through where this is going to be in five years’ time, because it’s very hard once you’re in an organisation not to be defined by the aspiration within that organisation. Lack of strategic clarity is very common in universities, I think.

And now some quickfire questions...

What are you reading at the moment?

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward.

What was your biggest break?

Meeting Joanna, my wife, because she rebalanced my life.

What’s your favourite quote?

Henry David Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with their song still inside them.”

Favourite holiday?

A cottage in France by a river.

What do you do to have fun?


What’s your favourite app?

The Health app on my iPhone, which measures how much I walk. I try to do 11,500 steps each day.

When does your alarm go off and how much sleep do you need?

For the last six months I’ve been writing a book, so I only get between five and six hours. I don’t use an alarm but I wake up at about 6am. Then I meditate for half an hour and then I do yoga.

Mary Ann Sieghart is a journalist and broadcaster. She also sits on the boards of Pantheon International and The Merchants Trust and chairs the cross-party Social Market Foundation think tank.

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