NGA's chief executive Emma Knights reflects on the role of the chair.
Now is the time of year that governing boards will be re-electing their chairs. Early on – before my time at NGA – we decided that it was good practice for chairs to limit their length of service at any one school: to six years unless there are exceptional circumstances. This means that after four years as chair at the very latest, you have to be looking for and developing a successor. We do practice what we preach – here at NGA there is a three year limit on being chair of our board of trustees.
This limit, at least at first, was not looked upon kindly by some of our active and loyal members, long-standing chairs themselves, and it is always hard to look at these things dispassionately, especially as governors tend to grow very passionate about their own schools. (A classic conflict of interest – and those are not always terribly well dealt in schools, but that is a story for another time.)
The most frequent defence is “no-one else will stand”; however, to put it bluntly, that is an admission that you as chair have not been carrying out the role fully. One of the key elements of chairing is to develop the governing board and ensure there is at least one potential successor. You need to be seen to be doing this and committed to passing on the reins. You don’t really believe you are the only person in the community who is able to perform this important role well.
What about the vice chair(s) and the committee chairs? Do you use them to the full? Have you suggested that they take the Chairs’ Development programme which is open to aspiring chairs too? Or have you even thought about having a job-share – maybe for your last year and the new chair’s first, or perhaps where both the potential candidates work full-time and would otherwise find it difficult to commit the time, especially during the school day. This very weekend I met a chair at the Barking & Dagenham governors’ conference who has been asked by her employer to spend less time volunteering, and therefore was thinking she had no option but to step down prematurely, but may be able to resolve the situation by sharing the role for this coming year.
Why is this so important? Governance is a corporate activity, with cabinet responsibility. As David Puttnam (yes, he of film fame) put it so marvellously at one of our conferences – headteachers come and go, but governing bodies are always there, the guardians of the schools for the community and for pupils present and future. As in all sectors, governance exists as a check on the power of an individual chief executive – in this case usually the headteacher or principal. But undue executive influence mustn’t just be replaced by the undue influence of a chair, or more likely in practice, a working relationship between the head and the chair that excludes others and the benefit of their ideas and challenges.
And another thing: experienced governors can help with school-to-school improvement. When you have come to the end of your service at one school, if you wish to continue to govern, please do volunteer for another school. You will grow to love that school too. This can be such a boon for that other school, and you will undoubtedly see things being done differently there – some for the better and others that you can work to change. We have suggested to the College (NCTL) that to qualify as a National Leader for Governance (NLG), you should have had governing experience, preferably chairing or vice chairing) at more than one school. It is difficult to be a great mentor for another chair, as NLGs are, with experience of only one governing board.
A year ago, two longstanding members decided to resign as chairs of their governing boards – both of whom had not been convinced originally by our policy, but once they had resigned, they recognised the benefits of having someone new take over. And what’s more, it is good to take a breath – chairing a school’s governing board is of course a huge commitment, and those of you who do volunteer for this responsible post need a medal. Maybe NGA should get some minted...
So, for those of you who have already chaired for four or five years, if you are putting yourself up for election once again, then please consider making it clear that this really will be your last year, but then spend the next two terms making sure you do have someone else ready to step forward in September 2015. Buy them a copy of our Chair’s Handbook – a new edition published this summer. But please please don’t feel that you are being pushed out; you are leading your board in a professional manner, leaving it in good hands, prepared by you. This is healthy governance, and there are lots and lots of other volunteering opportunities out there for you insatiable folk to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. Thank you.