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The New Chair – Introduction

Welcome by Chris – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The New Chair – Introduction

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This is the first in a series of blog posts by a newly-elected chair of governors in a primary school documenting the experiences s/he has starting out in the role. For obvious reasons it’s anonymous – if you have helpful questions then please leave them as a comment on this post – subject to the new chair’s availability s/he might answer as s/he can.

Chair’s welcome

A quick introduction

I’ve been a governor at three different schools over the last ten years – four years of which have been at the school I’m a chair at now. I became chair of governors at the start of this term. The school is a large village primary school, Ofsted says we’re good with outstanding and it’s not going to be that long before they’re back to inspect us again. We had a new headteacher start in September. We’re still part of the Local Authority, and yes, as with many other schools we’re considering our options around academisation.

I was elected chair at the first full governor’s meeting of the term, and I very quickly realised two things:

  1. I hadn’t thought about this enough before the meeting – I was about to chair a meeting without any real preparation. This isn’t normal for me, at work I’d have planned for any meeting I’m chairing, but the uncertainty that I’d even be Chair threw me.
  2. I wasn’t going to get much help from the outgoing Chair. He is staying on as a governor, but had wanted to retain his position as Chair, and there’s been almost no support from him since.

Learning to learn

I’d already attended a Chair’s course, and done an online module on Modern Governor but there’s a big difference between the theory and reality.  Since then, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on from DfE handbooks, Ofsted guidance, The Perfect (Ofsted) School Governor by Tim Bartlett and much, much more. Having done so, I realised how little our governing body does – we’d been sleepwalking with our previous (very experienced) headteacher in charge, and it showed in a number of areas – here are the first three that come to mind:

  • our results are poor, and there’s very little understanding of progress between year groups;
  • headteacher reports were the domain of the headteacher, not guided by the governing body;
  • statutory reports were not adequately fulfilled – you should see our pupil premium reporting (or not if you’re from Ofsted).

Changes

I’ve changed a few things – the easy and quick areas such as ensuring our website is up-to-date; starting new processes – a new headteacher report format and pupil premium tracking; improved our communication – the last chair made it a policy not to meet with parents or ask for feedback – we’ve changed both of those things already.

It is a heck of a lot more work than I expected it to be, although it is interesting and challenging, so it doesn’t feel like hard work at all.  The school is great, and there’s a real sense of togetherness under the new headteacher. Governors have a long list of things we need to do to ensure we’re ‘Ofsted ready’ – a lot of them are in understanding of data, progression, asking challenging questions and more.  But we’re on the right track and we’ll get there!

Questions for you

I’d be fascinated to hear about your experience of becoming the chair of governors in your school. If you can answer any of these questions please reply with a comment. Thank you!

  • How did you prioritize your first term in the job?
  • If the previous chair is still on your governing body, how do you manage them and the agenda s/he possibly still has for the school?
  • How do you manage to motivate the rest of the governing body to step-up and take some responsibility?

Image credit: Welcome by Chris – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


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21 Comments
  • Matt
    Posted at 11:12h, 03 December Reply

    Hi,
    My story is a similar one to yours.
    The plan I adopted was to forge a working partnership with the new head teacher and develop a shared vision for the school.
    But most importantly formulated a strategy for the governing body – a high level document that gives the whole Governing Body a shared direction of travel and to form the basis of the work with the school.
    Finally, yes the old chair is still on the board – however as a board there must have been a shared sense for otherwise you would not have been appointed.

  • Naureen
    Posted at 11:50h, 03 December Reply

    Congratulations on becoming Chair. You seem to have identified things which need changing and have started ringing them in. I have three questions I would like to ask you. Firstly, what do you think about the suggestion that Chairs should be paid? Secondly, how has the head reacted to your taking the chair and thirdly, how are you using your vice chair? Thank you

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 16:57h, 22 December Reply

      Thank you for the comment Naureen, I apologise for the delay in responding. To answer your questions:
      1 – I think it is an interesting suggestion, but complicated. For many governors who are employed, they’d have issues with tax and NI (they’d have to register for self-assessment) and that may well put some governors off. I think the concept of professionalising governors is a very good one, but professional doesn’t necessarily mean paid!
      2 – The Head has been incredibly supportive (and as they are new to the position too that is also a challenge!)
      3 – The Vice Chair is brilliant – taking on areas that I’m not expert in which is a great help.

  • Michelle Foster
    Posted at 11:55h, 03 December Reply

    I became Chair of a small secondary school at the end of the Spring term 2012. At that time our headteacher had resigned so the outgoing Chair thought it appropriate that a new Chair led the recruitment process. He was still involved for the remainder of the academic year but stood down in the September.

    My first 6-12 months were a baptism of fire. As well as undertaking headteacher recruitment (twice – we didn’t appoint at the first try!), I had inherited a governing body who relied totally on the Chair to do most of the work, and we had Ofsted arrive on our doorstep early in the autumn term inspecting under a new, relatively unknown, framework. (We came out Good!).

    Like you, I read everything I could get my hands on and signed up to numerous training courses, including the National College’s Chair of Governors Leadership Programme. I think I was driven by the fear of letting everyone down if I didn’t know enough!

    Over the first year I found that I developed my own style of leading the governing body – we had always had an annual awayday (a Saturday morning off-site) but I moved this towards being an opportunity to become more strategic in our thinking as a group. I lead a session around roles and responsibilities so that all governors understood what we were now supposed to be doing. We undertook our first governing body self evaluation and SWOT analysis and prepared our first ever governing body action plan which set out what we wanted to achieve over the next year and beyond. We reconstituted and restructured our committees to be more efficient. As Chair is such a huge role, I asked my Vice Chair to lead on some areas as, for example, she has more financial expertise than me – I’m more of a data person – luckily she agreed and we work really well together. I’ve also been designated as a National Leader of Governance and trained to undertake External Reviews of Governance which provides me with opportunities to share good practice with other governors as well as bring back good practice from external colleagues.

    I think we are now much more effective as a group than we used to be and are more of an asset to our school. Any vacancies on the governing body have been addressed by looking at where our skills gaps are and sll our governors are now more involved than they used to be, all participate in meetings and ask the challenging questions that need to be asked.

    I was very lucky – I work in education and had a lot of people at my place of work who provided me with a lot of support during my ‘rabbit in headlights’ phase. I would definitely recommend asking for some NLG support – it is free and, even if only to have a friendly voice at the end of the phone to talk things through with, it really helps – being Chair (I suppose like being a Headteacher) is quite a lonely role and the responsibilities keep on getting greater. It has been an incredibly steep learning curve for me (and continues to be so) but I wouldn’t change it for anything.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 16:58h, 22 December Reply

      Michelle, you’ve articulated all of my fears in one comment! “I think I was driven by the fear of letting everyone down if I didn’t know enough!” You have also reminded me that there’s a lot of things that we do at work that we should bring to bear in this role – I do SWOT analysis regularly at work, but hadn’t considered it as a governor. The end of term and I think I’m still in the rabbit-in-headlight’s phase, but there’s a lot more support than I thought there’d be and I’m slowly calming down! The NLG tip is a good one which I’ll take up!

  • Gerard Hurst
    Posted at 12:04h, 03 December Reply

    I am a Chair of a 3 school primary Federation (in my 6th year as chair)
    I am preparing a careful succession by giving 2 years notice and encouraging all governors to be aware they must have ownership of my replacement. I will remain to support a new chair. I believe we must focus on the strategic role and responsibilities therefore always to be looking that far ahead. I set expectations for every meeting and lead by example therefore no member of the GB can be in doubt on my leadership style and approach to effective meetings. I would agree that governors are not fully aware of how much time and commitment being a chair actually is. Motivation isn’t a problem at the moment, if anything we have too many governors from the joining of schools when federating but it is a credit to them that there is so much interest. However delegation is the key to keeping the chair workload sensible.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 16:59h, 22 December Reply

      It sounds like you have it covered Gerard! I’ve only one thought, in that we did have notice of the Chair stepping down, but unless it is a structured and phased transition it isn’t always smooth! If we were doing it again, I’d suggest a term where the outgoing Chair and incoming Chair work very closely together, meet with the HT together etc. That is certainly where we missed out!

  • Wurley
    Posted at 12:27h, 03 December Reply

    I haven’t a question – Just a comment.

    Keep this going – I’m interested.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 16:59h, 22 December Reply

      Thank you! I’ll certainly try to!

  • Scott
    Posted at 11:40h, 04 December Reply

    I’ve just become chair at a primary, judged RI by ofsted in March. I’ve only been on the GB for 7 months and that is my only governance experience. I am a secondary school teacher, so fortunately understand the data side of things and can ask some of the right questions.
    Our governors currently don’t have the skills, knowledge or motivation needed, so I’m looking to recruit, which is proving difficult.
    My other priorities are involving governors more with the school, attending events for example, and getting them to be more visible. I also loathe pointless meetings which are just info overloads with no actions, so all info and data is being emailed out to governors at least a week before meetings, the meeting will then be a time for the questions to be asked.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 16:59h, 22 December Reply

      Love the idea of the data being sent out a week prior to the meeting – I’ll certainly steal that idea from you! I have to say that although not the most critical of friends, they are a very committed group. Thanks for the ideas, and best of luck with being Chair!

  • David Martlew
    Posted at 10:53h, 06 December Reply

    I am a governor at a Church of England Primary School. A couple of years ago we decided as a governing body to seek Governor Mark, which we achieved successfully in about a year. The main value was not in achieving the award, but in using the application process to analyse our procedures and performance as a governing body, and to put in place the things we realised we lacked. It was great as a way of getting all the governors contributing! After achieving the award, we put in place an ongoing programme for governance improvement. So I’d recommend the idea of going for Governor Mark.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 17:00h, 22 December Reply

      Thank you for mentioning the Governor Mark – it is certainly on my list (although not until we’ve sorted out the basics!) Thank you for the comment!

  • Guy
    Posted at 09:04h, 23 December Reply

    Priorities
    1. Establish a constructive working relationship with the Headteacher.
    2. Commission reports from the Headteacher addressing known weaknesses in the school for FGB or the appropriate committee. Agree a reporting schedule with the H/T – E.g. Pupil progress report in Term 3, Pupil Premium in Term 4 etc. Work with the H/T to ensure that reports are gov-friendly, giving enough anonymised data so you can ask, Why are we weak in this area? What’s being done about it? When we can we expect to see the impact?
    3. Do you have KPIs for Pupil Achievement, behaviour etc. agreed at FGB and monitored over the course of the academic year so you all know what you are aiming for?

    Predecessors
    1. Form your committee chairs into a strong team who can both support and challenge you. A united team of senior govs will help counteract the influence of your predecessor. Agree the way forwards with them.
    2. Work to bring the whole GB on board with a clear vision and strategy for the school and steam ahead.

    Team building
    1. Devote a regular FGB agenda items to discussing aspects of the NGA’s Framework for Governance. Ask colleagues to reflect on GB strengths and weaknesses in the light of the framework.
    2. Conduct Skills and Training Audits to spot strengths and weaknesses. Address weaknesses through training and recruitment.
    3. Distribute roles such as Committee Chair and Vice Chair, SEN gov, Vulnerable Learners gov etc more evenly across the GB.
    4. If a govs attendance is poor and their contribution is negligible tell them that unless they are willing to up their game they should resign and give someone else a chance.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 14:20h, 10 March Reply

      Thank you Guy – this is a hugely helpful comment. I’m really sorry it has taken so long to get back to you – for some reason I didn’t get a notification!

      I really like the idea of an action plan grid for the year, and it’ll be something that I use! Thanks again.

  • Peter
    Posted at 12:24h, 23 December Reply

    My first job as a new Chair was to commission an external review of the Governing Body. Rather than force my own views upon the Governing Body about the direction I wanted us to take, I thought it would be more beneficial to get an external viewpoint, from which we could build and construct our own Governing Body Development Plan. The external review was a worthwhile exercise and the outcomes were pretty similar to my own ideas for moving governance forward (which was good in that it reassured me that I was on the right track with things), so it was a win-win situation for me as it helped in terms of my confidence.

    The former Chair left the Governing Body but is still involved with the school as she was appointed as School Business Manager, a fantastic appointment. She has been fully supportive of me in my role as Chair and I have as good a professional relationship with her as I do the Headteacher. We had just become a sponsored academy when I became Chair but the sponsor has been supportive of me and has had no objection to me moving the GB forward in line with the outcomes and recommendations of the external review.

    The hardest part of my role has been to rub some of my enthusiasm off on my fellow Governors. I try to encourage them to take on additional responsibilities (I have written Link Governor job descriptions to make things easier for them), I ask them to visit the school more regularly to witness first-hand how things work but it has been very difficult to get them all onside. I arranged a Governor Day in October and the attendance at that event could have been better, but for those who did attend they soon recognized the importance of Governors visiting school and took a lot away from it.

    Fortunately since my appointment as Chair in May 2013 we have gone from a school which would have gone into special measures if inspected (we were forced to become an academy at the time of my appointment as Chair) to one which secured a judgment of ‘good’ under leadership and management when we were inspected in March 2015. The inspectors commented favorably on the external review and the plan we had put into place to address our development priorities, which also demonstrated the impact of our work and our increased knowledge of the academy. Through the plan we were able to evidence that we visited the school on a regular basis and that our visits were aligned to school and governor development priorities. The way in which our minutes were written was revised so that challenging questions were recorded via a simple “Q” and “A” listing and I also arranged to have our committees clerked professionally, so that our committee minutes captured the same level of challenge as our full Governing Body minutes. The lead inspector praised our minutes when we were inspected and did not ask us any questions about pupil premium because (in his words) we had already provided enough evidence of our knowledge of this area of funding from what he had read.

    I have enjoyed making the step up to Chair of Governors from being a Governor. It is definitely a far more challenging role than that of Governor and it certainly demands more time commitments – but it can be (and in my case has been and still is) a very rewarding role, and when an Ofsted inspector comments favorably on the impact you have made as a Chair it makes everything seem so worthwhile.

    My advice to any new Chair would be to arrange an external review of the Governing Body if you haven’t had one already. It steers the direction in which the Governing Body needs to go in terms of its own development and, because it gives an external viewpoint, shouldn’t ruffle any feathers with longer standing Governors who may not be receptive to change or supportive of a Chair who wants to do things a little differently.

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 14:18h, 10 March Reply

      Thank you for this comment Peter – I’m really sorry it has taken so long to reply, for some reason it didn’t notify me you’d left a comment!

      I think your suggestion of an external review is an excellent one, and is something we’ve considered. What we have done is to work with a consultant who has really helped us see the wood for the trees. We’re letting things embed, and the external review may be next!

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  • Pauline
    Posted at 11:51h, 08 March Reply

    I am enjoying reading your blogs which are so useful. I have been a chair for 4 years at a primary school which is growing in size. My first year was challenging because the immediate past chair stayed on the GB and other governors used to look to see what that person’s response was to any suggestions I made. However, with a new HT and reconstitution that person and a couple of others decided to resign. Now in my 4th year the GB has developed significantly with a greater degree of cohesion and shared responsibility. We are more realistic and self evaluative. We’ve just had Ofsted and got ‘good’ so we all know that there is still more to do but ‘we’ can do it together. I agree with Naureen – you’ll develop your own leadership style and know what is necessary for the benefit of the children and staff in your school. Keep up the bloggin’

    • The New Chair
      Posted at 14:15h, 10 March Reply

      Thank you for the comment Pauline. I know the feeling of the immediate past-chair, but that will soon be a thing of the past (see my latest blog post!)
      I’m getting there, and trying to ignore the looming Ofsted – trying to keep everything focussed on what is right for the pupils and school!

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