“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time: they just have the heart.” (Elizabeth Andrew)
Over many years I have had the privilege to observe several chairs of governors – in some instances as a headteacher working closely alongside them. I found myself thinking what, as a headteacher, were the qualities I most valued or respected in a chair of governors – I came up with the “7 c’s”.
Candid – Headteacher’s need their chair of governors to be candid. A good chair of governors is that constructively critical friend who asks considered questions; who tests out the rationale behind proposals; and who is prepared to proffer counter arguments. As a headteacher I do not want my chair of governors to say what they think I want to hear. I want them to say what they genuinely think and feel. However, I also want them doing that in the safe environment of a regular one to one meeting with me. These candid discussions, undertaken outside of formal governor meetings, are pivotal in ensuring that by the next scheduled meeting a shared consensus between chair and head has been reached. A full governing body meeting where chair of governors and headteacher become locked in a public debate serves no one well. It instead creates an unsettling sense of divergence between the school’s two key figureheads. In 99.9% of instances Chair of Governors and headteacher should be going into a full governing body meeting singing off the same proverbial hymn sheet.
Capable – One of the key qualities required of a chair of governors is the capability to oversee the shaping of agendas, the working of committees and a whole host of other administrative and networking tasks that ensure the work of the governing body runs smoothly. Chairs of governors particularly need to be prepared to supportively and actively manage the work of the clerk to the governors. They need, for example, to be secure that key personnel have been made aware, in a timely manner, of deadline dates that governor meeting papers/reports need to be submitted to the clerk for distribution. This administrative aspect of the chair of governors’ role is rarely noticed until things go awry. I have known of worse case situations where colleague Headteachers have found themselves having to organise the governor meetings because the chair of governors either could not, or would not, do so. Such a scenario is a disaster – it breeds frustration in the headteacher, who finds themselves faced with additional tasks, and it disempowers the chair of governors who invariably has a lessened sense of ownership of the meeting they are chairing.
The other most obvious capability required of a chair of governors is the capacity to chair meetings effectively. To my mind the good chair ensures meetings are purposeful; keep to agreed timings; and reach agreed actions. The best chairs I have observed have that skill of paraphrasing the key points raised at the closure of each discussion. They also ensure the meetings start on time and thus do not penalise those governors who are good timekeepers.
Client/child focused – I would always want the chair of governor’s primary focus to be the best interests of the students/pupils. Virtually every decision or proposal should always, to my mind, be tested with the initial questions of – “How will this help the pupils/students in the school? What difference will it make to them?” If as a headteacher I am putting forward a proposal or initiative to governors and cannot answer those questions then it is probably not the greatest of ideas to start with.
Compassionate – There will be times when as chair of governors you will lead difficult meetings – a staff disciplinary panel, a grievance hearing or an appeal against an exclusion for example. Such meetings are fraught for all parties. It is imperative in these circumstances that, as chair, you are respectful of the pressures on all involved. Even if difficult or upsetting decisions have, ultimately, to be reached this can be done with consideration towards the well-being of all. Demonstrably showing compassion is also an expedient action in the sense that acting with sensitivity and fairness can diminish grounds for complaint or further appeals.
Compassion also applies to the chair of governor’s relationship with the headteacher. Shakespeare once wrote “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. Donning the “crown” of school leadership can sometimes be tough – after a difficult OFSTED; during upsetting safeguarding cases; when, as a head, your spirits or energy levels are low; and those moments when, as a school leader, you have your own personal tribulations. As a headteacher sometimes you need one person, a step removed from the day to day hurly burly of the school, with whom you can voice your concerns. Often the chair of governors is well placed to be that supportive and compassionate person. In my headship I had two instances where I needed additional support for my own emotional well-being. During those times the support and empathy of my chair of governors was pivotal in my getting through.
Composed – Even in the best governing body meeting things can, on occasions, get a little emotive. The chair of governors, in such situations has a challenging balance to uphold. All governors need the opportunity to raise legitimate and strongly held opinions but this needs to be done in a manner that is respectful. The skilled chair of governors, to my mind, is the one who manages these tense situations in a way that allows all views to be heard (including staff and parent governors); who adeptly paraphrases the key arguments raised; and then moves the governing body to reaching a decision. As a chair they robustly challenge anything that risks becoming personal and maintain the focus on the issue being discussed. They ensure that difficult discussions are undertaken with due decorum.
Constructive – The need to be constructive and positive is an important attribute I valued in a chair of governors. I was fortunate as a headteacher and enjoyed my regular meetings with my chairs. This was because they were genuinely eager to hear the positive stories about the school; they embraced the opportunity to celebrate the success of staff and pupils; they would be supportive when the going got tough; and above all else they always managed to leave me feeling personally valued. Imagine how disheartening the reverse would be for any school leader.
Courageous – Sometimes unfair flak will be directed at the school or there will be instances where its leaders or staff, will be unfairly criticised by an external agency or inspectorate. At these times the chair of governors needs to be courageous enough to openly and unequivocally take a supportive stand in support of the school and/or individuals within it. I can still recall the personal gratitude I felt whenever one of my chair of governors offered such backing. However, there will also be occasions when a criticism is justified or the external agency/inspectorate are right. On those occasions the chair of governors needs to equally courageously point this out to the headteacher – ideally with empathy, tact and diplomacy to the fore. As a head, I know at such times I could be defensive, overly sensitive, dejected or vulnerable – to err is human and invariably my emotions reflected disappointment in myself and/or for the school community I led. At such times a good maxim for any chair is that “when a person is down an ounce of encouragement is better than a pound of judgements.”
In closing, my seven “c’s” are not an exhaustive list of the skills needed to be an effective chair of governors. They are though some of the key attributes I have noted in the many chairs of governors that I have observed and respected. Every individual who undertakes this demanding role is, I believe, a civic hero.