While governing boards should remain strategic, one area where there is an operational element is managing the headteacher; the headteacher is responsible for managing all other staff. Managing the headteacher is relatively straightforward when things are going well but becomes much more difficult if they are not. NGA does get asked by governing boards when and how to instigate capability procedures in relation to headteachers.

Identifying the problem

The headteacher is responsible for the day to day operation of the school so ultimately any problems to do with the running of the school end up at her/his door. These become personal underperformance matters when the governing board deems that either action taken to remedy problems is not working, or no discernible action is being taken.

Herein lies the problem: at what point does a blip become a trend and warrant more direct intervention by the governing board? Does the board have to wait for a trend before it determines it’s time for the chair to have one of those courageous conversations (see NGA’s eight elements of effective governance) or is a blip enough to trigger action?

If the blip is unexpected it should always result in a conversation. But the point at which this moves from a governing board meeting discussion of what happened, why and what the headteacher proposes to do about it to a formal capability process will depend on the individual circumstances.

You would expect underperformance to be dealt with in the first instance through the usual performance management process, either at the annual appraisal meeting or six month review meeting. But if the identified issues are not addressed or other concerns about the headteacher’s performance become evident outside those meetings then they need to be addressed.

Raising the problem

It is vital that any issues are picked up as early as possible and dealt with quickly; both for the good of the school and the personal wellbeing of the head. If the head is not fulfilling any part of her/his role adequately then capability may need to be considered. This will almost certainly fall to the chair of governors to deal with.

If performance issues do arise then in the first instance an informal chat as part of the regular  meeting schedule might be the way to go – particularly if they have arisen recently and were not evident at the time of the formal appraisal meetings. But if the issues are serious and persistent you will have to move to a formal process.

The first step is to ensure you are familiar with your own procedure on capability and the stages to be followed. It’s then a case of collecting and documenting the evidence of the problems. You should read the ACAS Code of Practice as any tribunal will look to ensure that the employer followed the code. The code also acts as a good structure, especially where your capability policy isn’t clear on all the detail of the procedures to be followed.

Given the serious and difficult nature of the decision to embark on capability procedures it’s worth talking about your concerns with another governor – possibly the vice chair or the chair of a committee. This will provide both support and a sense check for your concerns and actions. Clearly that individual would not be able to sit on any panel should the headteacher raise a grievance about proceedings, which is why this information should be shared sparingly.

Put it in writing

The chair will need to arrange a meeting with the headteacher to discuss the concerns and must be clear that this is not a routine one-to-one. In most cases (and certainly where you embark on formal capability) you will need to inform the headteacher in writing about the nature of the meeting and that s/he can bring a companion/friend.

The meeting provides an opportunity for the headteacher to respond to the concerns about her/his performance and make any relevant representations. It may be at this stage that you decide either that there are insufficient grounds to continue with capability, or that the additional evidence provided means that the matter should continue to be dealt with under the normal appraisal policy.

Where you remain convinced of the need for formal capability then you will need to set out: where you consider the headteacher’s performance to fall short of an acceptable standard; clear guidance about what you consider the acceptable standard to be, which may require you to set new objectives linked to the identified weaknesses; and what the success criteria for meeting the standards will look like.

You will also need to set out what evidence you will use to assess ongoing performance and a clear timetable for improvement along with monitoring and review meetings. You should inform the headteacher what additional support will be made available to assist her/him. It is also important that you inform the head of the possible consequences of a failure to improve during the set period – i.e. that s/he could be dismissed.

From this point you need to monitor the situation against agreed timelines and outcomes. If performance improves the headteacher may move out of capability and monitoring is done through the normal performance management procedures.

If at the end of the review period you are satisfied that the headteacher has made sufficient improvement then s/he will be taken out of capability procedures and the appraisal process will restart.

However, if the head has not made sufficient improvement there are usually two options. Where some progress has been made and the evidence suggests that it is likely more will be, you could extend the monitoring and review period.

If during the review period performance doesn’t improve then in most cases your capability procedure will require you to issue a final written warning which will inform the headteacher that failure to improve within a set period will result in dismissal. Should performance not improve the headteacher should either be dismissed or a recommendation for her/his dismissal made to the governing board.

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