Last reviewed 2 April 2019
Martin Hodgson, a former school governor, focuses on the roles of the Chair and vice Chair of a governing body.
Responsibilities of the Chair
The role of the Chair is a critical one in school governance. Chairs are responsible for ensuring that governing bodies function effectively within the law and uphold the highest professional standards at all times.
Guidance on effective governance is provided in the latest Governors Handbook, published by the Department for Education (DfE) in January 2017. Chairs should comply with the guidance and provide the governing body with clear leadership and direction, keeping it focused on its core strategic functions.
The core functions are defined in the handbook as:
ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the performance management of staff
overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.
The core functions are reflected in the criteria that Ofsted inspectors use to judge the effectiveness of school or academy leadership.
Other key aspects of the Chairs leadership role include:
ensuring that the governing body conducts its business properly and in accordance with the law and its constituted powers
running meetings of the governing body effectively, focusing on priorities and making the best use of the time available
giving all members a chance to participate in discussions and decision-making
establishing and maintaining an effective relationship with the Head teacher.
Filling the role
The Chair is an elected post. When the role of Chair becomes vacant an election to fill the vacancy should take place as soon as possible. Succession planning arrangements should mean that there is no lengthy pause in the effective governance of the school.
Any member of the existing governing body can be elected as Chair except for the Head teacher and staff governors. The Governance Handbook states that the focus of the procedure for appointing a Chair from among the existing members of the board should be on appointing someone with the appropriate skills and experience for the role. Merely having a willingness to serve is not considered sufficient.
The Competency Framework for Governance, published by the DfE in January 2017, sets out the knowledge and skills that an effective Chair is considered to require. In this respect, the framework can help with areas such as electing a Chair, judging their effectiveness, performance reviews, identifying training needs, succession planning and induction, etc.
The competencies required for an effective Chair listed in the guidance include the ability to:
think strategically about the future direction of the school
lead governors in ensuring operational decisions contribute to strategic priorities
provide effective leadership of organisational change even when this is difficult
lead board meetings in a way which embodies the culture, values and ethos of the school.
Knowledge required includes thorough familiarity with the Ofsted criteria for effective governance and knowledge of the National Governance Association Code of Practice for School Governors.
If a governing body decides that none of its members have the appropriate skills, the board can advertise for a Chair from outside the school. Any successful candidate would have to be appointed to a vacant position on the board and then elected as Chair.
Providing effective leadership
Guidance on being an effective Chair was published in June 2014 by the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) which has since been incorporated into the DfE.
Leading Governors: The Role of the Chair of Governors in Schools and Academies states that it is the Chair’s role to make sure that everyone on the board understands what is expected of them and receives appropriate induction, training and development. The Chair should encourage governors to work together as an effective team, helping them build their skills, knowledge and experience. The Chair must also ensure that governors are actively contributing relevant skills and experience, and that they are participating constructively in meetings and committees.
If any governor appears not to be committed, or is ineffective in their role, the DfE says it is the Chair’s role to have an “honest conversation” with them about their contribution.
In addition to the above, the Chair must ensure that the governing body conducts its business in accordance with the law and within its constituted powers.
Here the effective Chair will work closely with the clerk to the governors whose role includes providing advice on regulations and procedures. The Chair will also draw on the clerk to ensure that meetings of the full governing body are run properly. Meetings must be efficiently chaired. The Chair should ensure that meetings keep to the agenda and run on time. They should give all members a chance to participate in discussions and in decision-making.
The Chair plays a pivotal role in setting the culture of the governing body and in providing the necessary focus and leadership. However, the Chair has no individual power beyond that of any other governor. The governing body is a corporate entity and its power and authority rest with the body, as a whole.
Relationship with the Head teacher
The relationship between Head teacher and the Chair is a crucial one. The two must work closely together and support each other in a relationship that requires honesty and mutual respect.
The Chair must work as a “critical friend” to the Head by offering support, challenge and encouragement. They must ensure that the Head’s performance management is rigorous and robust and is managed effectively.
Leading Governors: The Role of the Chair of Governors in Schools and Academies likens the role to that of the Chair of a board of trustees who works with the chief executive of an organisation but does not run day-to-day operations. In this respect, the Chair must always remember that their role is a strategic one and avoid being drawn into day-to-day management of the school.
Building and leading a team
An effective Chair must have the skills to provide the governing body with a clear lead and direction, ensuring that the governors work as a team and understand their own roles.
A thorough knowledge of the school is important. The Chair will need to have a view about attracting governors who have the necessary skills and will work together. They should ensure that necessary tasks are delegated effectively so that all members contribute and feel that their individual skills, knowledge and experience are well used and that the overall workload is shared.
Being able to work with a range of different people and get the best out of them is a particular skill that the Chair will either bring to the role or need to develop. Acting as a champion for equality and diversity is also an important quality in a Chair, as is the need to encourage the culture of self-evaluation and review that is essential to well-performing organisations.
The vice Chair
The vice Chair is responsible for providing support to the Chair. They will also assume the role and responsibilities of the Chair in case of their temporary absence, for instance, due to sickness or holiday, etc.
In addition to standing-in for the Chair if required, the vice Chair may also be delegated specific areas of responsibility, such as overseeing governors training, etc.
Training and guidance
All governors should access appropriate training in order to maintain their effectiveness, including chairs and vice chairs.
A range of training and development opportunities are available. These vary from local courses and events set up by local authorities and school networks, to national programmes delivered either face-to-face or through web-based e-Learning by accredited bodies.
A key resource are the Leading Governance Development programmes run by the National Governance Association. Courses provide chairs, vice chairs and clerks with opportunities to develop their leadership capabilities and become more confident in their governance skills. The programmes include face-to-face workshops focusing on leadership development and dedicated mentor support.
Leading Governors: The Role of the Chair of Governors in Schools and Academies can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.