Dame Suzi Leather: "More balls than a lot of politicians"

The Charity Commission's chair gets top marks from onlookers for daring to enter the annual Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in Liverpool last week, writes Paul Jump

Dame Suzi Leather
Dame Suzi Leather

"She has more balls than a lot of politicians," remarked one headmaster after Dame Suzi Leather's appearance at the annual Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in Liverpool last week.

There was certainly a sense of Daniel in the lion's den about the Charity Commission chair's appearance before about 250 private school heads. She had been savagely criticised by their allies in the press after the commission's verdict earlier this year that two out of the five fee-charging schools it examined did not deliver enough public benefit.

The hostility had been racked up two days earlier by Andrew Grant, chair of the conference, who likened Leather to Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and invited her to reflect on the arch-fixer's fate - he had his head cut off.

Leather said it was a "pleasure and a bit of a relief" to be able to address heads directly. In measured tones, she assured them the commission was sensitive to their financial realities and would give them up to five years to pull their socks up. She also insisted they would almost certainly never face a public benefit assessment because the regulator had no "desire, plan or resources" to create an inspectorate.

She also called on the Independent Schools Council, which has been very vocal in its criticism, to engage with the commission instead of "exchanging soundbites through a megaphone".

She rejected accusations that the commission was obsessed with bursaries and insisted that, in principle, a school could pass the public benefit test without offering any bursaries. But she also noted that none of the schools the commission had assessed would have done so.

This prompted Christopher Ray, high master of Manchester Grammar School - which passed its assessment - to reel off a long list of "about half" the benefits his school provides through partnerships with its local community. "Is it worth it? We deeply believe in it but (the commission's stance) is worrying," he said. "Some members of staff may begin to feel it is like having one's head banged against a brick wall."

This provoked loud applause - as did another comment thanking Grant for his "refreshingly clear and forceful" comments. Meanwhile, Leather's response that Ray's school had "sailed through on indirect benefits alone" met with puzzled expressions given her earlier remarks.

Her perceived lack of clarity came in for criticism in the lobby afterwards. One headmaster marked her down for a "boring" speech; another said he did not believe her assurances. Nevertheless, she got high marks for agreeing to attend and appeared to have convinced a minority that the law, rather than the commission, was the problem. But this is one unruly class that clearly still needs a lot of careful handling.

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