Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Chair's Handbook NGA Guide

The Chair's Handbook: A guide for chairs of school governing boards,
Gillian Allcroft & Emma Knighs, National Governors' Association, 5th Edition, 2016, 72pp

I didn't especially want to be Chair of Governors. I joined our school's governing board as a Parent Governor, not really knowing much about governance. The existing chair seemed pretty well established and didn't look as though she was going anywhere. Only I was wrong about that. One FGB she suddenly announced that she was standing down. Soon. By that time I'd only been a governor for a year (since January 2012) and didn't feel up to taking on the role. Neither did anyone else for that matter. "Would anyone like to be considered as chair?" asked the outgoing one. The wind whistled around our ears like in that tense moment after a gunfight in a cowboy film when the Colt 45s have fallen silent. No one made eye contact. Tumbleweed rolled across the boardroom floor. "That's a 'no', then." Certainly was.

The LA was approached and they managed to rustle us up a recently retired headteacher to act as chair. Her main task was to oversee the appointment of a substantive headteacher, as an interim head was in place at the time. Oh, and she also had to lead us through an Oftsed inspection a couple of months after taking the chair. We were judged Requires Improvement. Another thing was to spot a successor from our own number. A substantive headteacher was appointed, with Dr. Riding due to start in September 2013. That job done, the chair could now concentrate her efforts on digging an escape tunnel. Cue 'Great Escape' music. 

Only I was the escape tunnel. Won't bore you with the details, but I was persuaded that I was the right man for the role and was duly elected to serve as chair in July 2013. Steep learning curve. You don't know what it's like to be chair until you're it. The clerk is calling for a decision. The headteacher wants to discuss how best to handle a tricky situation. Then there's the board. You have to ensure that they become a strategic leadership team, united behind a common vision, working with the Headteacher in pursuit of shared goals. Now you can't become aware of an 'issue' and think, 'Oh I'm sure someone else will see to that', because if you don't get it seen to, it's likely no one will. 

I was used to chairing meetings and leading a group of volunteers, which was a good start. Those bits are part and parcel of my role as a Baptist Minister. The Church Members' Meetings which I chair as pastor have formal agendas; the church's vision, goals and activities are discussed, accounts received and so on. But those were the only types of meetings that I'd ever chaired. I was a bit worried that I'd begin my first FGB in a non-denominational school by saying, "Let us pray" and finish up pronouncing the benediction. Thus far I've managed to avoid confusing pulpit and chair.

When Ofsted came to call in February 2015 they found the GB in much better shape. The school was judged 'Good' with many outstanding features. We're forging ahead with our ambition to ensure that the school is a world class centre for teaching and learning at the heart of the local community. But there's still a lot to do and I'm going to need to be at the top of my game as chair to ensure that the governing board plays its part effectively. That's why the NGA's The Chair's Handbook is such a useful publication. For newbie chairs it is an invaluable guide to help you get a handle on a role that has in all likelihood been thrust upon you. For more experienced colleagues, the work offers an opportunity for us to review what we do against the models of best practice offered here. 

In crystal clear prose and with the help of user friendly diagrams the guide focuses on on seven crucial areas for chairs: 1. Leading governance in schools. 2. Leading and developing the team. 3. The chair, the headteacher and accountability. 4. Leading school improvement. 5. Leading governing board business. 6. Becoming the chair. 7. Leaving the chair. This edition is fully up-to-date, including when required, differentiated advice for chairs of governors in maintained schools, Academies and MAT boards. It really is a one stop shop for all things chairy.

Especially when you've been chair for a few years it's good to stand back, take stock of your work and consider what needs improving. With clinical accuracy authors Gillian Allcroft and Emma Knights expose chairing shortcomings that need correcting. I tend to be quite self-critical anyway so reading stuff like this can be quite painful. But there we are. I suppose it's worth triggering a bout of gloomy introspection if it makes me a better chair. There's certainly nowhere to hide for poor practitioners, from control freaks who can't delegate to inadequate numptys into whose heads a remotely strategic thought has never popped. Although they don't put it quite like that.

I once heard a fellow-chair say that his role was not to give the board leadership. That kind of thing was down to the headteacher. While it's true that the head is expected to lead the operational running of the school, it's not his/her job to lead the board to which they are accountable. That is very definitely the chair's role. As the headings listed above indicate, the guide has a welcome emphasis on the chair as leader of governance. The authors state,
The chair leads the governing board, ensuring it fulfills its functions well. The culture of the board is largely determined by the chair, for better or worse. A good chair will ensure its focus is on the strategic, and it is no exaggeration to say that the success or failure of the board depends heavily on the caliber of the chair. (p. 10)
No pressure, then.

Reading The Chairs Handbook may also serve to highlight issues that have been relegated to the back burner which need to be addressed with greater urgency. Succession planning is one thing. I don't want to leave the GB in a position where they are unable to appoint my successor from among our own number. By the time I'm done, who knows what help the LA may be able to offer? 

Being chair of governors is an immense privilege and is actually rather enjoyable. Especially as you see the board growing in strength, colleagues stepping up to take on new roles, and, above all the school you serve going forwards in leaps and bounds. It also helps if you like a challenge. But more is required of a chair than well-meaning enthusiasm. They need a clear understanding of their role and the qualities needed to make a success of it. The Chair's Handbook very definitely points us in the right direction. The guide should be mandatory reading for all current practitioners and wannabes.

Thanks, @NGAMedia. An electronic version for Gold members would make it easier to share some of the excellent material for board-level discussion.  

Now to that escape tunnel. Da da dah dah dah da da...