Last reviewed 13 March 2018

Each school governing body should have an elected Chair of governors. Martin Hodgson, a former school governor, explores the main responsibilities of the role and how a new Chair is elected.

The role of the Chair

The role of the Chair is a critical one in any governing body. With support from the vice chair, they are responsible for ensuring that the governing body functions effectively within the law and upholds the highest professional standards at all times.

Guidance is provided in the latest Governors Handbook, published by the Department for Education (DfE) in January 2017, and in Leading Governors: The Role of the Chair of Governors in Schools and Academies, published by the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) in June 2014.

The guidance states that the Chair must provide the governing body with clear leadership and direction, keeping it focused on its core strategic functions.

According to the NCTL, an effective Chair of governors will:

  • work with the Head to promote and maintain high standards of educational achievement

  • ensure that the governing body sets a clear vision, ethos and strategic direction for the school

  • ensure that the governing body holds the Head to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils and for the performance management of staff

  • ensure oversight of the financial performance of the school and the effective use of the schools resources.

The DfE 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.

Last, the Chair must work with the clerk to the governors to ensure that the governing body conducts its business in accordance with the law and within its constituted powers. Here, the clerk can act as a valuable guide, advising the Chair over 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.

Limitations of the Chair’s role

The Chair plays a pivotal role in setting the culture of the governing body and in providing focus and leadership, but they have no individual power beyond that of any other governor. The governing body is a corporate entity and its power and authority rests with the body as a whole.

The Governors Handbook makes it clear that the Chair must not exercise as an individual any of the functions of the board except where this has been sanctioned by the board, or in the case of maintained schools, in the specific circumstances permitted in the School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) (England) Regulations 2013.

On occasions where a delay in taking action is likely to be seriously detrimental to the interests of the school, the Chair may need to take “chair’s action” in an emergency. However, any such action must be reported to the whole governing body as soon as possible.

Working with the Head

The relationship between the Head and Chair is a crucial one. The two leaders must work closely together and support each other in a relationship that requires honesty and mutual respect.

The Chair must be a “critical friend” to the Head by offering support, challenge and encouragement. They must ensure the Head’s performance management is managed effectively and is rigorous and robust.

The NCTL likens the role with 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 its role is a strategic one and to avoid being drawn into day-to-day management of the school.

Succession planning

When the office 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. The role of Chair is a vital one in the functioning of a governing body and it is important that the governors fill the empty role quickly but with the right person.

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 skills for the role” and not just a willingness to serve. The guidance also states that it is possible to appoint more than one person to share the role if the board wishes.

The Competency Framework for Governance published by DfE in January 2017 contains information on the knowledge and skills that an effective Chair requires.

There is no restriction on how often a Chair can be re-elected, and many chairs serve multiple times. However, the DfE states that in some circumstances a change of Chair may be appropriate for the board to move forward. Any member of the existing governing body can be elected as Chair except for the Head, staff governors and governors who are pupils.

If a board decides that none of its members has the appropriate skills, it can advertise for a skilled 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.

The DfE notes the benefits to the school system of a model where “strong chairs” move on after one or two terms of office to share their experience around different schools.

Election and term of office

The election process for a new Chair is not prescribed and it is for each governing body to decide their own procedure.

The election should be placed on the agenda of a meeting of the full board. A common arrangement would be for candidates to be nominated and seconded by governors. The board would then vote on the appointment with the normal quorum for governors voting applying.

Those standing for election should withdraw when the vote is taken.

In some cases, the governing body may decide that additional arrangements are necessary, such as written nominations prior to the meeting. If there is more than one candidate for the post, a secret ballot may be held rather than a show of hands. In this situation, the clerk to the governors would usually arrange the ballot.

The term of office for each post is determined by the governing body before the election takes place. A four-year period is common.

A Chair may resign at any time by informing the clerk to the governing body in writing.

Training and development for Chairs

All governors should access appropriate training, including the Chair. The fact that the Chair accesses training will act as an encouragement for others. The Chair should also ensure that new governors receive induction, which may include a talk with themselves.

A range of training and development opportunities are available for Chairs. These vary from local courses and events set up by local authorities and school networks, to national programmes delivered either face to face or via web-based e-Learning by accredited bodies.

For instance, the National Governance Association (NGA) runs the Leading Governance Development for Chairs programme. The course is funded by the DfE to provide Chairs, vice chairs, committee chairs and future Chairs opportunities for developing leadership skills and confident governance.

The programme includes:

  • three face-to-face workshops focusing on leadership development

  • a dedicated mentor to provide guidance and support

  • independent and group learning

  • access to interactive e-Learning modules and resources

  • a school-based project to ensure that theory is translated into improved practice

  • peer-to-peer networking to strengthen learning.

The full cost of the programme is £500 although funding may be available.

Aside from the national course, the NGA also provides consultancy services for Chairs, an Effective Chairing course, and a range of resources, including an appraisal tool for Chairs.

The Effective Chairing course is a two-hour session designed to be delivered to governing board Chairs and prospective Chairs. One or more governing board can share the session which can be customised to local needs.

The 360-degree appraisal tool is designed to enable Chairs to gain insights into your their leadership strengths and development needs. The tool is available online and is supported through a telephone mentoring session with an NGA consultant.

Further details on NGA training courses can be found on their website.