All governors and trustees need to be clear on their collective role. Where individuals are delegated responsibility for specific areas the accountability still lies with the corporate board. Any delegation must be clearly defined through terms of reference which the board agrees, detailing what the individual (or the committee) has been tasked with carrying out, how they will report back and if they are making a decision, or a recommendation. Further information is available on the 'Terms of Reference' page of this website.
The National Governance Association (NGA) has produced model role descriptions for governors and for trustees, which are available to download below.
The Governance Handbook defines the three core roles of governors and trustees:
- 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; and
- Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.
The role of the chair
The chair has a difficult task, needing to bring together a group of individuals from different backgrounds and with different experiences and skills to form a cohesive team. The common denominator amongst these individuals is the commitment to ensuring the best possible outcomes for the children and young people in the school, or community of schools. The chair, working with the headteacher and supported by the vice-chair and the clerk, acts as a facilitator to bring this group of people together; harnessing their collective will in order to appropriately support and challenge the school. The chair should be able to listen to and understand a wide range of views, present information clearly and concisely and get clarification of relevant points, thus enabling the board to make effective decisions.
The role of the chair is pivotal to effective and strategic governance, the skills of the chair, vice-chair and chairs of subcommittees are important for fostering team working between governors, both within and outside the meetings. The ability to chair meetings is vitally important but so is creating an appropriate atmosphere within boards and between members. The chair creates the conditions and sets the tone for the overall effectiveness of the board and the contribution of individual governors and trustees to enhance that effectiveness. The chair should demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and set clear expectations concerning the culture, values and behaviours, and the style and nature of board discussions. The chair is the leader of the governing board, but has limited power to act alone.
Chairing is a leadership role; managing the business of the governing board and meetings; team building and succession planning within the board; developing a professional relationship with the headteacher; and leading and managing the boards’ role in school improvement. The skills and effective behaviours the Department for Education has identified for an effective chair are detailed within the Competency Framework for Governance, which is available to download below.
The role of co-chairs
DO WE HAVE ANY NOMINATIONS FOR THE CHAIR?
Schools will conduct an election process for the chair and vice-chair on a regular basis, for many governing boards this is an annual occurrence. What happens when everyone is suddenly very interested in the colour of their footwear and no-one dares to make eye contact in case they find themselves nominated? How about the succession planning that the Department for Education (DfE) promotes in the Governance Handbook, where are the next generation of chairs coming from? Could it be you?
There is an opportunity to share the load, by appointing co-chairs. We need to acknowledge that taking on the role of the chair can be daunting and it can be difficult to find an individual who has not only the will and the skill. but also the time to commit to the role. The prospect of sharing the position, playing to the strengths of each of the co-chairs and knowing that there is someone else to share the load and the responsibility can make the job much more achievable for a greater range of people, including busy 'professionals'.
The DfE regulations allow maintained schools to operate with co-chairs, academy schools will need to check their articles, but there is nothing in the model articles which would preclude academies from having co-chairs.
In any co-chair model communication is the key to making it work, with a clear definition of which co-chair is responsible for which area. Boards will firstly need to agree that they are happy to adopt a co-chair model and be satisfied that it would not lead to any lack of clarity in leadership. The headteacher/principal, governors or trustees and clerk will need to know which individual is leading on each area and who they should contact.
Co-chair case study Kingsbridge Community Primary School
Kingsbridge Community Primary School
Jo Matson and Vikki Matthews share their experiences as co-chairs at Kingsbridge . The idea came about because the chair of governors at the time had to step down and there was no one else who either wanted to, or who felt they had the capacity to, take on the role of chair. They say:
‘Vikki and I both work in professional jobs. We work long hours, often away from home and we both have young children at the school. The demands on our time are therefore many and varied, but we were keen to ensure that governance continued to be effective. Vikki initially suggested the idea of co-chairing and we realised this could be a good way to manage the role for us as individuals and we hoped also for the school.
The fact that we were (and luckily still are!) good friends before we took on the role has helped enormously, but that is by no means a pre-requisite to co-chairing. Being able to get on with your co-chair and have an excellent working relationship is critical however, as is an understanding of each other’s key skills, strengths and weaknesses.
Our primary recommendation to anyone considering co-chairing would be to ensure you define your roles clearly at the start. It is very important that each of you, along with your headteacher, clerk and other governors know which of you is responsible for different areas. This is where we fell down slightly at the start; people didn’t know which of us to contact and there was duplication in our workloads – something the whole idea of co-chairing was trying to avoid! There will always be a slight overlap - that can’t really be avoided in this role - but by defining which area each of us would be responsible for and clearly communicating this has helped to deal with the issue, at least in part. As friends, we already had a good understanding of each other’s skills and knowledge; what each of us were good (and not so good) at! This helped enormously in allocating our roles and responsibilities. If you do not know each other well, we would recommend a ‘mini skills audit’ of each other, to ensure you are assigning the correct areas to the most appropriate co-chair.
The next tip for effective co-chairing probably sounds an obvious one but it is essential – good communication between the two of you. All of us are volunteers with busy lives, but touching base with your co-chair at least once a week either by phone or in person has been vital in having a complete picture of what is going on. We also communicate by e-mail regularly and copy each other into relevant e-mails we send or receive. It is important not to copy your co-chair into everything, because some things do not come under their ‘remit’ and again it would defeat the object of the co-chair model if your co-chair is asked to have a view on everything. If there are things the other co-chair needs to know, we give each other a précis when we meet/talk.
It can be quite daunting for a headteacher to have two chairs to deal with instead of one. Our recommendation would be to try not to ‘bombard’ the head with communications from you both. Perhaps this is something that, on reflection, we could have improved upon from the start and communication with our head is something that we are still learning and improving as we go. We have fortnightly meetings with our headteacher; we try to both attend, so the head doesn’t have the additional burden of a separate meeting with each of us. If only one of us is able to attend, the other will later update their co-chair.
Due to our work commitments, we are not always both able to attend all governor meetings. At Kingsbridge we have two committees in addition to the full governing board (FGB) meetings; generally Vikki attends the Resources committee and Jo the Teaching and Learning. We tend to take it in turns to chair the FGB meetings and do not always both attend.
Our experience of co-chairing is that it has worked very well; it has enabled each of us to devote appropriate time to the role, without being overwhelmed. Given the increasing demands upon chairs of governors, we would certainly recommend it as a way forward for those who would like to be chair but worry they don’t have sufficient time to commit. As we see it, there have been many pros but very few cons to co-chairing. It’s a lot more fun and we think less stressful to do it together!’
Co-chair case study Bovey Tracey Primary School
Bovey Tracey Primary School
Rebecca Cosgrave and Katie Honnor became co-chairs at the school in January 2015, when the previous chair stood down, they share their experience with us. There wasn’t a queue of people ready and willing to step into the role and no obvious candidate who might step up with some appropriate persuasion. Rebecca and Katie agreed that as an interim measure they would act as co-chairs for a period of a year, a suggestion which was warmly received by the governing board and duly put into place. They say:
‘From the outset we agreed that we would share everything, rather than having defined areas of responsibility. Emails are copied to us both, so that we each have the full picture of what is happening within the governing board and in school. A natural division has evolved, which has led to Katie doing more of the face to face school time visits and meetings, including being part of the headteacher performance panel. Rebecca has taken on the oversight for particular projects, such as the reconstitution of the governing board, which do not require a daytime school visit.
We had a newly appointed headteacher, which meant we could explore the co-chair model together, defining and developing what worked in our setting. We feel it provides the head with an additional ‘sounding board’ by having two people to bounce ideas off, rather than one. It also potentially gives the head greater access to the chair, as if one of us is not available through work or family commitments, the other often is. As co-chairs we have a great deal of trust in each other, we are sure that the same consistent messages will be given whichever co-chair someone talks to.
Communication between us is paramount to making it work. We meet face to face regularly, talk on the phone and exchange emails. Being a co-chair means that someone has always ‘got your back’; we seem to get more done as a unit than we would individually. It helps to give different perspectives on things, different ways of tackling issues; we can give each other support and confidence and drive momentum.
Our Ofsted inspection was certainly easier to face as co-chairs and resulted in a ‘good’ judgement, with some very favourable comments being made about the governance of the school.
Co-chairing has also led to a greater devolvement and distribution of tasks amongst the individual members of the governing board. For example, we agreed that neither co-chair would act as a committee chair although we both attend the meetings of the two committees. Clear expectations are in place that individual governors volunteer to take ownership for actions which arise through meetings and follow through on these actions, which is working really well.
At full governing board meetings we share the agenda for each meeting between us, giving each of us a chance to fully contribute ‘as a governor’ rather than chairing that section of the agenda. Prior to each full governing board meeting we meet up to decide who will lead on each section, playing to our differing strengths and skills, and we ensure that each is fully aware of what the other has been doing between meetings.’
Having reached the end of the ‘interim’ year of co-chairing the model proved so successful that the board wished to continue to structure the governing board in this way.
The role of the vice-chair
There is much available about the role of the chair, with a model role description from the National Governance Association, sections within the Competency Framework for Governance detailing the knowledge, skills and behaviours they feel the chair should demonstrate and paragraphs within the Governance Handbook outlining the responsibilities of the chair. The vice-chair role is not so clearly defined; other than the expectation that the vice-chair will step in to run meetings in the absence of the chair. What does the role entail in your setting? When your board holds the election for the office of the chair and the vice-chair are there clear parameters in place for what people are being asked to do if they take on one of those positions? If your board operates with co-chairs the vice-chair role may become even more nebulous; are we making the most of our vice-chairs and utilising their time, commitment and skills to lighten the load for the chair and contribute to the efficient working of the board?
In thinking about the position of the vice-chair in your setting it could be valuable to review the chairs’ responsibilities and workload to consider if there are any aspects which the vice-chair could take on. Within full board meetings perhaps the vice-chair could lead on some of the agenda items on a regular basis, giving the chair an opportunity to contribute fully to the discussions for those items as a member of the board, or chair the whole meeting once a term. The vice-chair could also contribute to the agenda setting process, working collaboratively with the chair, headteacher and clerk, to help ensure that nothing is missed and the purpose of the agenda items is clear (and strategic).
In some boards the vice-chair is considered to be a natural step on the route to potentially becoming the chair of the board at some point in the future. If this is the expectation in your board we need to ensure that the vice-chair is aware of it (!) and offer opportunities for them to develop, perhaps by attending the annual Chairs’ Updates or by joining the Heads Chairs and Clerks training session alongside the current chair. They could perhaps shadow the chair, joining conversations, briefings and meetings that the chair participates in, helping to build their knowledge and professional relationships with key stakeholders.
The vice-chair could be responsible for working with the clerk to conduct a regular skills audit and using the findings from this audit both to help develop a training programme for the board and to inform the recruitment process. The vice-chair may be the person who has conversations with individual governors about governance in the setting, identifying what has gone well and what could be improved, or they may work with the chair as a sounding board for the chairs own self-evaluation. The vice-chair might lead on the induction process for new governors or trustees, ensuring that they have a friendly contact within the board and touching base with them regularly to make sure all is going well and new recruits are not feeling either overwhelmed or underused. In addition to supporting new members of the board the vice-chair could be a mentor for individuals who are taking on additional responsibility for the first time.
The board may have an expectation that the vice-chair will take on a lead role reporting to the board, such as safeguarding, or pupil premium champion. Further they may be expected to chair a committee, be part of the headteacher’s appraisal panel or sit on the pay and performance committee. The vice-chair could lead on parental and staff engagement, analysing the results of the boards’ annual questionnaire to their stakeholders and suggesting strategies for the board to consider in order to address any issues identified.
Succession planning is another area that the vice-chair could be asked to consider; much is said about the importance of succession planning, but unless someone takes responsibility for this area it is unlikely to happen. Where are your next governors or trustees coming from; who will chair the resources committee when your current committee chair retires next year; who will have the knowledge and skills to interrogate data or finance if the current individual leaves the board? The vice-chair could have a positive impact on the effectiveness of the governing board by considering if the governance structure currently in place is fit for purpose, working with the clerk to suggest other ways the board could work to be more strategic or avoid duplication.
The next time someone asks what the vice-chair does in your setting perhaps your board will be able to respond that the vice-chair actively develops the knowledge, skills and understanding to share the workload with the chair and governing board.
The role of a committee chair
The role of the chair of a committee is vital to the effective contribution of the committee to the strategic operation of the board. Much of the work undertaken between board meetings may be delegated to committees, the board appoints committees and agrees their terms of delegation. As with all delegated responsibilities the accountability still lies with the board, so the activity of the committee must be reported. This is often achieved by circulating the minutes from the committee to the full board and the chair of the committee responding to questions at full board meetings. It is important that if something has been delegated to a committee to undertake the work is not duplicated at board level, or by another committee. In a multi-academy trust the local governing bodies are, in effect, committees of the trust board, delegated responsibility to oversee particular aspects within individual schools in the trust.
The chair needs to ensure that governors, trustees or associate members who sit on the committee are familiar with and understand the terms of reference they are operating under, so they are clear on what has been delegated to them by the board. The chair will co-ordinate the work of the committee, to fulfil any relevant statutory obligations on behalf of the board and ensure that the committee contributes effectively to the annual cycle of business. The committee chair will need to work with the chairs of other committes, the chair of the board, the headteacher/principal and the clerk to make sure there is no duplication across the committees and the board.
Working with the clerk, the committee chair will set strategic agendas and ensure that the committee has the information it needs to operate effectively. They will promote good working relationships within the committee, ensuring that members' strengths, skills and interests are recognised and utilised to help achieve the committees objectives. The chair of the committee may be responsible for having an 'annual conversation' with committee members, discussing how individuals feel the operation or effectiveness of the committee could be improved and how they could contribute. The chair of the committee may also encourage the continued personal development of the members' knowledge and understanding, including through recommending relevant training. The chair may formulate a committee development plan at the beginning of the academic year, consistent with the priorities of the governing board and the school.
The committee chair will ensure that meetings are effectively planned and chaired, stay strategic and focus on the identified areas of responsibility; ensuring that individuals carry through on actions they have been assigned. The chair should agree the draft minutes with the clerk promptly, so these can be circulated to the board. The chair should ensure that any potential conflicts of interest are appropriately handled and that members of the committee are clear where confidentiality needs to be maintained.
Some boards have a chairs meeting, where the chair of the board and the committee chairs, or local governing body chairs, can meet to exchange information, fine-tune agendas and plan the next round of meetings.
Model governor role description
From the National Governance Association
Model trustee role description
From the National Governance Association
The Governance Handbook
From the Department for Education
The Competency Framework for Governance
From the Department for Education
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