The vice chair

Clare Collins looks at ways of getting the most from an often undervalued and underutilised role

THE ROLE of the vice chair of the board is frequently one with a big title and little to do. So much so that we come across governing boards that don’t have a vice chair. But if the chair goes under a metaphorical bus there needs to be someone who can immediately step up to the role.

We do come across boards where circumstances such as family illness, accidents or unexpected work pressures have meant that the chair has to take a leave of absence or resign… in which case, the role of the vice chair suddenly becomes critical.

Three recent experiences have made me reassess the role of the vice chair. The first is personal. I have a great vice chair who will succeed me, and who is undertaking the Chairs’ Development Programme in preparation for this. Governing at fragile schools means that often there is not a wealth of candidates for such roles and it is a while since I have felt confident that succession is secure and that the new chair will bring additional strengths and skills to the role.

The second is related to my previous column about the chair, in effect, performance managing their board. There has been a real interest in this and we hope that it will contribute to the culture shift currently
taking place as school governance aligns more closely with Third sector practice where this kind of review
is becoming more the norm. It has occurred to me more than once that this is an aspect of the chair’s role that the vice chair could very easily take on.

In fact, it may even make more sense as colleagues may be more open when asked to feed back on how the
work of the board is led and managed if they are not talking to the person who is leading and managing it. Plus it fits with another role of inducting and mentoring members of the board which can also be usefully assigned to the vice chair. Those of us who are chairs, especially at a school that is experiencing change, will know that the workload for a chair is considerable. It would make sense to delegate this task to the vice chair.

The final experience concerns watching a colleague deliver a session on an effective board meeting. This
was delivered to a cohort of Teach First ambassadors who have volunteered to be governors and are undertaking the Teach First Governor Impact Programme. The central activity of the workshop is a mock board meeting with all participants assigned roles, including one being the clerk, and one or two being observers to take notes and feed back. Needless to say, there is an agenda plus an incomplete set of papers as well as some tricky issues to tackle.

The participants are given pen portraits of their roles so they know how to present or report their item, thus sparking debate about how best to respond. Regular ‘time outs’ allow the group to debate the options for dealing with the items so that the meeting can be truly effective.

What really impressed me was that the chair and vice chair (neither of whom held these positions on their
governing boards) were a splendid twosome, with the chair referring to her vice at key points, and then getting the vice chair to sum up each item. It worked really well as a wrap-up to each point, demonstrated great teamwork and added to the efficiency and effectiveness of the meeting.

These experiences have been real learning points. In seeking to make the role of the vice chair more meaningful, we will be advocating looking beyond the obvious need for a reserve chair and good succession planning, to a role description that includes some significant tasks and contributions to making governing
board meetings effective.

Clare Collins is head of NGA’s
consultancy service. To book
your governing board a session
on effective meetings, contact

Published: 06/12/2016, by Sam Henson
Last Updated: 06/12/2016, by Sam Henson