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Knowing your limits


This is the time of year when many of you valiant servants will be considering whether to put yourselves forward for yet another year. Last September I blogged encouraging long-standing chairs to consider handing over – and if your chair (or indeed you as chair) has been in post for over four years with no sign of a succession plan, please take this seriously. Since last year’s blog, NGA has developed with the Eastern Leadership Centre a 360 degree review service for chairs: please do make use of it.

Commitment and dedication to the cause of education are key to good governance and without that the system would fall apart. However I make no apology for revisiting the issue as the culture of long service in school governance is very strong to the extent that its defence can sometimes come over as an entitlement. 

For many years NGA has had a policy that serving as chair of the same governing board for more than six years should be the exception, not the rule.  Last term a member asked me to also justify the extension of this good practice suggestion:  that governing on the same school’s board should likewise be limited to eight years, which NGA began to recommend three years ago. 

Many of NGA’s longstanding and active members cheerfully ignore or failed to notice this recommendation.  For example 10% of respondents of the NGA/TES 2015 annual survey of governors and trustees had governed at just one school for more than ten years. However, recently, our suggestion has begun to be noticed a little more since we have been successful in persuading partners to adopt these term limits as good practice, and they have appeared in a number of places, most notably What we expect and the self-evaluation questions for governing boards. The Department for Education in its January 2015 edition of the Governors’ Handbook also has accepted the principle, saying: “With effective succession planning in place, it can be beneficial for strong governors and chairs in particular to move on to another school after a reasonable time (e.g. two terms of office). This can help to share expertise across the system and prevent governing bodies stagnating or individual governors gaining too much power and influence solely through their length of service.”

The existence of term limits is a common phenomenon in other sectors. For example in the charity – or third – sector, the practice is widely considered good practice; this is reiterated in a number of places, to quote the Directory of Social Change (DSC), whose survey showed only 20% of charities have unlimited terms of office: "It is widely accepted that term limits help to ensure that boards regularly refresh themselves and make it much easier to retire people who are no longer adding high value."

The Governance Code for the third sector expects charities to maintain “a strategy for board renewal that will meet the organisation’s changing needs. This will cover maximum terms of office and succession planning, particularly for the chair and other key positions/skills”.

Lord Hodgson's review of the 2006 Charities Act, commissioned by the Government and published in 2012, also supported the principle of term limits, recommending that: “Trusteeship should normally be limited in a charity’s constitution to three terms of no more than three years’ service each, and the Charity Commission and umbrella bodies should amend their model constitution documents to reflect this. Any charity which does not include this measure in its constitution should be required to explain the reasons for this in its annual report.”

In the education sector, The Association of Colleges has a code for college governors which says “Governors should not normally serve for more than two terms (or a maximum of eight years) except where subsequently undertaking a new and more senior role, for example as chair.” On chairs they say “reappointment should only take place after consideration is given to college need and performance”. 

There’s no academic research on the subject I am afraid, but in its absence it is reasonable to rely on experience and the collective wisdom of those who have been in the governance world.  Governance disasters also provide some illumination – Alan Yentob had held the position of chair of KidsCompany for 18 years.  We do not necessarily hold up Ofsted as a consistently good arbiter on the quality of governance, but we do sometimes notice schools where the same chair is named over a series of Ofsted reports, such as one recently where the same chair had clearly been in post over a period of ten years when the school had gone from being an outstanding national support school to inadequate.

The main arguments in the literature for term limits are:

1.      Term limits force organisations to develop new leaders. Boards that know they'll need a new chair or new governors every few years are more likely to recruit new members with an eye toward future leadership roles.   And a good succession plan will have development at its core.  For example the Chair’s Development Programme licensed by the National College Teaching & Leadership is open to aspiring chairs too.

2.      Term limits provide a painless way for people who aren't doing a good job to retire gracefully and automatically. NGA hears frequent stories from chairs about ‘deadwood’ or ‘rogue’ governors and likewise from some governors about chairs who do not have the skills to lead the board. In both cases there may well be ways to remove or stand against the underperforming colleague, but governing boards are often reticent to make waves in this way, especially if they feel the person is well-intentioned and committed, but not suited to the role. Where such actions are taken, very often people do take it very personally and the whole affair becomes unpleasant, difficult, time-consuming and possibly diverting from the important business of the governing board.  It is already a challenge to get our business done well in the time we have got to give and we have seen some boards completely sidetrack their business because of disputes about governors’ behaviours.      

3.      Term limits lead to healthier refreshed boards. New volunteers provide periodic injections of new energy, ideas, contacts and most probably challenge. Most importantly they should prevent practice and behaviours becoming staid and stuck in a rut. We hear often from new governors who volunteered to make a difference that they can’t affect any change as the constant response is: ‘we don’t go it that way here’; ‘schools are different’; ‘we tried it before’ etc.  Having a dominant group of long-standing governors with others who come and go around them is not healthy, neither is a such a strong axis between the headteacher and the chair that other governors don’t get a look in. Term limits reduce the likelihood that a few individuals will dominate board discussions and decision-making. Governing is a corporate activity and it is strongest when a team of diverse people who understand the task are fully engaged. Sharing the load should prevent burnout; the lack of time is one of the biggest complaints governors make.

So the second question I am asked is how did you choose eight years as your recommendation for a maximum term of service?

In the third sector, it is up to each charity to set their own limits, and a DSC survey of charities found that for the vast majority with limits trustees were restricted to serving nine or even fewer years. For example, NGA has a three year limit for the chair and vice-chair, and nine years for trustees, but terms of office for NGA trustees are three years, and not four.  Hence the slightly different multiples from the eight years we suggest for governors.

We are not certainly suggesting a mass exodus overnight, but want to encourage governing boards to adopt these guidelines as good practice; to take stock at a governing board meeting, perhaps the first of the year, and to plan ahead.   The only argument we have ever had put to us against term limits is that is no-one else will do the role; “it is impossible to find volunteers”.  We absolutely understand the difficulties of recruitment, and that is why we were founding members of Inspiring Governors Alliance, and have recently added to our guidance on recruitment. We also know that many schools are not making use of the potential volunteers ready and waiting on the Inspiring Futures database. There are other good people out there; however we do need to make the time to find them, train them and pass the mantle on.

Many of the movers and shakers in the education sector also govern – and sadly more often than not I am told stories about their dysfunctional governing boards (we all know it is easier to talk about governance in theory than to practice it well).  I had a conversation with a senior educationalist over the summer who had been in the position of trying and failing to influence a governing board stuck in their ways of doing things, a particularly frustrating position for someone who is used to having influence at work, who finished by saying: “I wasn’t initially convinced by NGA’s position on length of service, but now I’ve had this experience, I can see that you are right”.  

Although we mustn’t conflate long service at one school with expertise, on the other hand I would never ever argue they are mutually exclusive.  It is worth repeating that all your valuable experience does not need to go to waste: knowledgeable governors can be a vital part of the so-called ‘self-improving system’. When you have come to the end of your service at one school, you can of course volunteer at another school. 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. And while sharing your expertise, you will no doubt grow to love that school too. Please do think about it and don’t let another year pass without a plan to ensure the governing board is strong enough to cope with change.

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.