Honing the effectiveness of the Chair of Governors

13 Apr

I           Introduction

All governors are equal but there is a case to be made for stating that some governors are more equal than others – in particular, two – the chair and unless s/he has decided not to be a governor, the headteacher.  How well they perform, more often than not, determines how well the rest of the governors do.  To round the effectiveness circle, the clerk to the governors, who is not a governor, must operate with efficiency and aplomb if the governing body is to succeed.   This article focuses on the role of the chair and the knowledge, skills and commitment required of her/him to shape an excellent governing body.

There are sufficient horror stories of chairs who demonstrated how to lead ineffectively.

(i)         Take the case of the chair who was unable to string two sentences of good English together though power went to his head.   In little or no time, he led the school into special measures and drove the headteacher, who was a serious diabetic, to despair, distraction and eventually destruction, leading to his premature resignation.

(ii)        Then there was the chair, who had such a fondness for the bottle, that whenever he tottered into meetings of the governing body or its committees he displayed a mien that signalled that he had very little blood in his alcohol stream.

(iii)       In a third case, the chair engaged in a string of malpractices – giving his headteacher time off – sometimes for two or more days – to go to Europe and see his beloved football team, Tottenham, perform in UEFA contests.  In turn, the headteacher returned the favours by commissioning his chair to carry out Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) and discharging the functions of the caretaker during weekends, for which he was paid.   This school eventually was placed in special measures for both, the poor education it provided the children and the enormous debt created through maladministration.

Fortunately, the horror stories are few.  There are many shining examples of good practice. Here are three.

(i)         The headteacher of a primary school had suffered from a sudden, rare illness that had temporarily paralysed her arm. The doctors were at a loss when it came to diagnosing the problem.  Naturally, she was away on sick leave for some time.  During this period, the chair took the initiative of going into the school, arranging with fellow governors a series of acting-up positions and giving sustenance and succour to the staff.  He regularly phoned the husband of the headteacher and reassured him that she should not worry about the school.  All this happened when his (the chair’s) son was diagnosed with cancer and he, himself, was distraught.

(ii)        There was the case of a chair who provided huge support to a relatively new headteacher of a school that had been given a notice to improve by Ofsted at a time when the local authority was expanding it from two to four forms of entry because of a shortage of school places caused by an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, a movement in population from inner to outer London because of a change in housing benefits and an increase in the birth rate.  The chair spent in the region of 50 hours weekly, working for the school to discharge his duties – all gratis.

(iii)       The chair of governors of a new federation of two schools where one had been given a notice to improve ensured that time was set aside at every meeting to organise a modicum of training for his governors to ensure that they were up to speed and implementing good practice.

I could go on.   The fact of the matter is that most chairs take on the position because they want to be of use to their schools, to make a positive difference.  A few do so reluctantly because there is no one else to do the job.  Others are shanghaied into it by fellow governors who want to capitalise on their talents.    Whatever the reasons, chairs, who take on the responsibility, need to be supported by their fellow governors.   To enhance their performance, it is right that the members also challenge, but this should be done positively.

It takes a new governor a couple of years to understand what governance is about before she/he becomes effective.   No one should contemplate becoming chair before being a governor for at least three years.

II          Guidance from the Department for Education and the National College

So what do the Department for Education (DfE) and the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) have to say about what makes a good chair?

The Department for Education (DfE) produced non-statutory guidance on the School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) (England) Regulations 2013, (paragraph 16) which is as follows.

She/he is responsible for

  1. providing clear leadership and direction to the board and keeping it focused on its core functions;
  2. encouraging governors to work as part of an effective team, building their skills, knowledge and experience;
  3. ensuring that all governors are actively contributing relevant skills and experience, participating constructively in meetings and playing their part in the work of any committees; and
  4. ensuring every governor knows what is expected of her/him and receives appropriate training and induction. It is for the chair to have ‘honest’ conversations, as necessary, if governors are not pulling their weight.

While all these functions are, indeed, challenging, one that sometimes poses more difficulty than most is the last.   There is no easy way to let someone know that she/he is not making a useful contribution or any contribution at all and that the person should consider doing something else where she/he will be of greater use.   However, a good chair will take courage in both hands in the interest of effective governance and to benefit the school, and confront the problem.   Good chairs (and governors) never lose sight of why all who work at and for the school do so, i.e. the best interests of the children in it.

The NCTL published a booklet, on the subject, i.e. Leading governors: The role of the chair of governors in schools and academiesThe booklet amplifies on the five functions of the chair.

  1. Leading effective governance
  2. Building the team
  • Being a critical friend of the headteacher
  1. Improving the school
  2. Leading the business

(a)        Leading effective governance

An effective chair builds an effective team. And what makes an effective team? Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook (published in September 2014), requires inspectors to assess how well school governors discharge the following duties and functions – 15 in all.

(i)         Carry out statutory duties, such as safeguarding and understand the boundaries of their roles as governors

(ii)        Promote tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and none, cultures, and lifestyles, support and help, through their words, actions and influence within the school and more widely in the community, to prepare children and young people for life in modern Britain.

(iii)       Establish clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction, including long-term planning – including succession.

(iv)       Contribute to the school’s self-evaluation and understand its strengths and weaknesses, including the quality of teaching, and review the impact of their own work.

(v)        Understand and take sufficient account of pupil data, including what’s published on Ofsted’s data dashboard site.

(vi)       Assure themselves of the rigour of the assessment process.

(vii)      Are aware of the impact of teaching on learning and progress in the different subjects and year groups.

(viii)     Provide challenge and hold the headteacher and other senior leaders to account for improving the quality of teaching, pupils’ achievements and their behaviour, by the use of the data dashboard, other progress data, examination outcomes and test results and consider whether they (i.e. the governors) hinder school improvement by their failure to tackle key concerns and/or not developing their skills.

(ix)       Secure the safety of the pupils and the wider school community.

(x)        Use the Pupil Premium and other resources to overcome barriers to learning, including reading, writing and mathematics.

(xi)       Ensure solvency, probity and that the financial resources available to the school are managed effectively.

(xii)      Provide effective support and challenge for the headteacher.

(xiii)     Monitor the performance management system and understand how the school makes decisions about teachers’ salary progression, including engaging in the performance management of the headteacher, to improve teaching, leadership and management.

(xiv)     Engage effectively with stakeholders.

(xv)      Be transparent and accountable in all matters, including the recruitment of staff, governance structures, attendance at meetings and contact with parents and carers.

Good chairs regularly assess how well their fellow governors are doing in most if not all of the above.  Where the governors are falling short, the chairs take action to redeem situations before they spiral downward into gross inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

(b)       Building the Team

When a team works well, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The nature of governors’ work is voluntary so that it is impossible for the chair to do it all on her/his own.   Delegating and motivating other governors to take on roles and responsibilities which they can carry out well help build a strong team which benefits the school.  A chair’s expectations of governors are critical to good team-working.

But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  Governors must have what it takes, to ensure that corporately, the members of the governing body have all the knowledge and skills required for the effective operations.  Recruitment is important, but so also is training to develop governors’ talents and skills.

How well do the governors work together?  Are the members at one another’s throats engaging in one-upmanship or do they recognise and applaud one another for work well done? In this connection, the National Governors’ Association has produced an excellent Code of Practice for school governors.    Essex County Council has also produced something similar for governors in Academies.

A very important aspect of the business of governance is ensuring that the school is using its finances well and, in particular, for the benefit of pupils.   Accordingly, it is important that the objectives within the SDP are appropriately costed and the monitoring of expenditure reveals that spending is in line with plans, unless there are compelling reasons for deviation.

(c)        Being a critical friend of the headteacher

The relationship between the chair and headteacher is crucial to good governance and (possibly) the most important one on the governing body.  Good relations are seldom developed through the process of osmosis.  Rather, the chair has to block in time and use energy to enable the governing body to become effective.

It has to be both, supportive and challenging.   The balance to be struck is difficult: too friendly and the relationship becomes cosy, seducing both into complacency; too critical and it can degenerate into debilitating conflict that damages the school.

Accordingly, the NCTL suggests that the chair considers the following when assessing this relationship.

(i)         Expectations of the relationship with the headteacher. Are they the same or are the chair and headteacher making assumptions of each other’s expectations?

(ii)        Do the arrangements for keeping in touch suit both parties?

(iii)       How effectively does the chair support, challenge and hold the headteacher to account?  Could any aspects of the relationship be improved?

(iv)       In which areas of work would the chair and headteacher benefit from joint training?

(v)        How effective is the performance management of the headteacher?

(d)       Improving the School

Improving the school is not possible without knowing it well through information gleaned firsthand i.e. by visiting the school, second-hand through reports from the headteacher on the quality of provision (including teaching), the progress of the pupils and the test and examination results, and third-hand through reports on the school from the Local Authority and Ofsted and information gleaned from the pupils, parents and wider community which the school serves and in which it is sited.

It is critical for the chair to ensure that the governors are knowledgeable about the

(i)         school’s strengths and weaknesses, what is being done to build on the strengths and action being taken to deal with the weaknesses [in short, the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) and/or the School Development Plan (SDP)];

(ii)        the data in relation to the progress and achievements of the pupils;

(iii)       the quality of teaching and learning;

(iv)       the curriculum on offer (including the extra-curricular activities);

(v)        the behaviour of the children and how safe they are;

(vi)       the effectiveness and efficiency with which the school’s resources are being deployed;

(vii)      how well the school is complying with the law as it effects education – especially the Equality Act 2010 and the Children and Families Act 2014 – which sweeps up on special needs; and

(viii)     the aspirations for the school – i.e. where governors wish the school to be in three to five years’ time.

(e)        Leading the Business

The Chair, finally, has a responsibility for ensuring that the business of governance is conducted efficiently and in an orderly manner. This is where employing a good clerk is helpful.   Here are some questions for the chair to ask.

(i)         Is the governors’ business focused on the school strategic plan?

(ii)        Do governors receive the agenda papers for their committee and governing body meetings in good time – including the headteacher’s report – so that they can read the material in advance and hold the senior leadership team to account with a view to improving the school performance?

(iii)       Is the SEF sufficiently robust so that governors can focus on strategy?

(iv)       How well is the clerk performing?  Is there a sufficiently robust job description and does the pay reflect the level, amount and quality of work?  In this connection, the National Governors’ Association has proposed that the nomenclature, “clerk” be changed to “director of governance” as the importance of the role has been heightened with the increase in the number and profundity of governors’ responsibilities?

(v)        How well do the chair and vice chair share responsibilities for the business of leading the governors?

(vi)       Are meetings run effectively enabling all governors to make contributions yet finishing in good time instead of at ungodly hours of the night?

A good chair controls meetings well, does not engage in pregnant pauses, is an excellent facilitator who gives all members chances to contribute but does not permit anyone to hog meetings and be seduced by the sounds of their voices.  The chair also summarises discussions on each item and confirms the decision/s made before moving on.

The good chair also holds governors to account.   If they promised to take action on any matter by a particular time, they are held to the promises and if not, remedial action is taken.

(vi)       How positive is the impact of the work on the school – particularly on pupils’ progress and achievements?

III        Concluding Thoughts

So, where does all this leave us?

For starters, chairs may wish to reflect on the daunting responsibilities they have taken on by assuming such positions.  A 360o appraisal would be a good place to start.  The brave chair will invite fellow governors to complete a form – devised by Ruth Agnew, one of The Key’s experienced governors’ services manager and training – and present it to the clerk for analysis so that she/he may receive feedback.   The form will ask governors if they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree on the following in relation to the chair’s performance.

(i)         The chair has a clear vision for the school and for the role of the governing body, which is communicated effectively to other governors.

(ii)        The chair has a strong relationship with the headteacher which is not exclusive or cosy, but supports the role of the governing body as a critical friend.

(iii)       The chair understands the difference between the role of the governing body and that of the headteacher and seeks to ensure that governors retain a strategic focus.

(iv)       The chair ensures that effective induction processes are in place to support new governors.

(v)        The chair ensures that all governors understand their roles on the governing body and feel supported in these roles.

(vi)       The chair has a clear understanding of the strengths and skills of other governors and delegates responsibilities appropriately.

(vii)      The chair is self-reflective and encourages the governing body to review its practices regularly.

(viii)     The chair ensures that the agendas for meetings and the work of the governing body focus on school priorities and are driven by the school development plan.

(ix)       All governors feel able to contribute in meetings and realise that their views are received sensibly.

(x)        Meetings are well-organised and run to time.  Decisions and actions are clear and are recorded.

(xi)       The chair has a good understanding of the school/s (plural if the governing body is a federated one) and its/their local and national contexts, which informs the governing body’s deliberations.

Underneath each statement there should be a space for each governor to comment.

One last point is worth stressing.   There is no legal time limit on how long the same person should serve as chair.  Provided that elections are held regularly – once annually, if possible – the same person could be elected as chair.   However, the NGA suggests that no person serves in that position for more than six years.  There is merit in this because the chair can become complacent or cosy with the headteacher or too “know-it-all” with fellow governors.  However, provided that the chair takes measures to prevent falling into these traps and reinvents her/himself with energy and dynamism, there is nothing to stop the person from continuing as long as s/he wishes.

If you are a governor and have gone through the article reflectively, I hope that it does not put you off wanting to become a chair, especially if you have the skills and are prepared to deploy them for the benefit of the school and its pupils.   There are several shining examples of national leaders among the governors – the NCTL knows all about them – and they are becoming a powerful group in the educational world.

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