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Taking the chair - where to begin?


At the opening governing board meeting of the year, many governors/trustees will have found themselves stepping forward to take the chair for the first time. Hopefully this step up was in your board’s succession plan, but it may have been an unforeseen decision. Whatever the reason, we know that taking the chair can feel overwhelming to the extent that it can be difficult to establish where to begin, and how to make a success of the role.

Good chairing is one of the eight elements of effective governance. Primarily, the chair’s role is to lead the board and ensure that it fulfils its three core functions well by setting the culture and ensuring a focus on the strategic.

So, where should you begin as a chair? We asked our expert team to share their advice and insight based on their own experience of chairing a governing board(s).

Emma Balchin, NGA’s director of professional development, chair of the local governing body at a primary PRU and vice chair of a primary MAT : “Take stock of everything, from the vision and strategy to the makeup of the board and the schedule of business. A self-review is a great starting point – complete it with the board and make a plan for the way forward thereafter. Once you’ve done the review, don’t focus on the peripheral issues but be really clear about what will bring about improvements and successes and focus on that. A good way to begin this is by plastering the vision on all the paperwork (minutes/ agendas etc.) so that it keeps everyone focused on why they are doing what they are doing. One of the most helpful things I find as a chair is to meet with other chairs/governors as often as is practicable: establish a network for support early on as someone has always been through it and can offer help or empathy.”

Simon Richards, NGA’s chairs’ development manager and currently chair of governors at a primary school: “As a new chair it is very easy to allow your enthusiasm to draw your attention in lots of different directions, both within your setting and with external stakeholders. To ensure you prioritise the right things and use your time effectively constantly ask yourself, with every new email or demand on your time: “how does this benefit the young people in my school and how does this contribute to the achievement of strategic objectives?”  Don’t be afraid to say no!”

Clare Collins, head of consultancy and with many years of chairing a range of boards: “Build relationships with the team around you – if necessary speaking on a one-to-one basis with your governors/trustees, the clerk, senior leaders and other key people such as the receptionist and the senior leader’s PA. Ensuring you have a top notch clerk and learning who to speak to ‘up the line’ (e.g. the director for education, CEO, trust chair) and when this is appropriate, is something that you should get to grips with early on. Making contact with other chairs so that you can check your thinking/ offload/ share can be a huge help. Finally, never for one tiny moment think you’ve got it nailed.”

Bill Kiely, NGA’s business development manager and chair of governors at a federation of special schools: “A new chair should think about what they have experienced in the past with good and bad chairs and try to make sure they use the best practice they have experienced. Remember that sometimes a single chair may show both good and bad practice. My top tip would be to start looking at a strategy for your replacement from day one, do not leave it till the last moment as that will be too late. It is good for the board to realise you are not planning to be there for ever. What I have learnt as a chair is that you cannot change everything in one go, you must make strategic decisions to change the important things first, this could be board morale, staff morale, exam results – each school will be different. Sometimes it is the small issues that are the ones that need to get sorted first. You need to use your experience from everyday life to assess what is important.”

Judith Hicks, NGA’s head of Inspiring Governance and most recently chair at an infant school: “My advice would be to just relax – don’t worry about having to know everything from day one. The headteacher will work with you and the clerk will advise you on procedure and knows the regulations. Build a positive working relationship with your clerk – don’t just manage them via email – meet off site for a coffee once a term to talk about planned business and priorities for the next term – a good, motivated and supportive clerk can be an absolute life save to any chair.”

Paul Aber, NGA’s head of training development and a former chair of governors at a residential special school 8-19: “It’s always important to remind oneself and one’s board what governance is for; it’s to provide the best education possible for all pupils and this feels particularly important in a special school where every opportunity to learn is so precious. Always remember that one’s fellow governors are volunteers, often busy but generous people and so it’s important for the chair to help organise things so best use can be made of their time and that it isn’t taken for granted. I would say that a strong mutually supportive relationships with one’s vice-chair and the clerk are hugely important, particularly when having to manage conflicting demands of panel work, day to day governance business, working with the head. One has to somehow create space and time to chair effectively and appreciate that you just don’t know what might be just around the corner, needing urgent attention. Be prepared to embrace this uncertainty, I found it intensely stimulating and rewarding and also that you cannot do everything and are not best qualified to do everything.”

Do you have any wisdom, insight or experience to share with new chairs? Tell us in the comments below.

Resources to support new chairs:

  • The Chair’s Handbook – essential reading for new and established chairs, this comprehensive guide sets out everything chairs need to know about their role and shares best practice which they can draw upon.
  • Leading Governance Development for Chairs programme – two fully funded places are available to every board at no cost to the school (worth £1,000) for chairs including vice chairs, committee chairs and future chairs. The nine-month programme offers a mixture of face-to-face and online training, and includes networking opportunities and observing other boards in action.
  • Chair’s role description – offering clarity on the role, this model role description details the tasks that chairs will be expected to complete, the required skillset and guidelines for the hours that chairs should be committing to the role.
  • Networking opportunities – NGA member events enable chairs to network and share experience and best practice. Other local networks are facilitated by local authorities, associations and other providers.
  • Social media provides a quick way to reach out to other new and experienced chairs – get going by using #UKgovchat