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Primary Education News
News The headteacher-chair of governors relationship: lessons from private sector boards
A study has examined the workings of private sector boards to see if there are any lessons or messages for school governing bodies. Chris James reviews the findings
Most headteachers will tell you their relationship with the chair of their governing body is significant. For our research titled A review of the literature on the role of the board chair: What are the messages for chairs of school governing bodies, funded by CfBT Education Trust, we reviewed the literature on the board chair in non-educational settings – the corporate, public and voluntary sectors. We wanted to see if it could tell us anything that might help school governing body chairs – and heads. The literature painted an interesting picture; one that resonated with me in particular due to my role as a governor at my children's school.
First, it is reassuring to note that the chair-CEO relationship is potentially tricky in any setting. However, the literature stresses, and heads reading this will no doubt agree, that the chair needs to run the board effectively if the relationship is going to work properly. During our research, the successful chairs tended to take responsibility for the way the board works and making sure the board does what it's supposed to. Responsibilities such as; run meetings properly, which means making sure they run to time with all the papers ready well in advance, worked to continually enhance board effectiveness; the board needs to continually improve just like the rest of the organisation.
There is one point especially where the literature is clear: board chairs are responsible for the governing system; CEOs are responsible for the operating system. Heads shouldn't try to run the governing body because they have got enough to do in their everyday role. By the same token, chairs shouldn't try to run the school because this is the role of the head and the chair's interference isn't likely to help. It is managing these boundaries which can be a challenge for both the chair and the CEO.
High quality chair-CEO relationships are characterised by trust, integrity and openness on both sides. No surprise there – but it's worth bearing this in mind when you're working with the chair. A sound relationship enables each partner to be a 'source of knowledge' for the other. So, the chair's insights should help you and vice versa.
Something which can complicate the dynamics in this relationship is the fact that the board chair has a designated role managing the performance of the CEO. It is seen as a key part of the role and the relationship. If you're a head, it's worth making sure the chair is involved in your performance management from the outset. If they're not, it's likely to disrupt the relationship. We've just started a DfE funded project looking at heads' performance management and would welcome any thoughts from school leaders on this issue. If you would like to share your thoughts please do email me - firstname.lastname@example.org.
Case Study - St Mark's Church of England Academy, Mitcham Eastfields
When the new headteacher started at St Mark's Academy in September 2009 the school was experiencing probably one of the most difficult periods in its history; including a major negative dip in KS4 exam results, a rebuild which had overrun and an Ofsted inspection in the third week of the new term. At this challenging time establishing a strong relationship between the new head and the chair of governors was key and has resulted in rapid improvements at the academy and an Ofsted rating of 'outstanding' for governance in its latest inspection in October 2012.
Because of the situation that the school was in, there were undoubtedly going to be difficult conversations that needed to be had between the headteacher and the chair. In these situations a basis of firm respect for each other is key; respecting that they have the resources to take on board tough messages and also that they will have the resilience to come up with solutions. Geraldine Hutchinson, chair of governors, explains: "Avoiding a tough conversation is not honest in my view - and being honest is a fundamental part of getting the relationship right. In these situations I will use a coaching conversation which does not involve 'telling' or ultimatums. Instead this helps to draw out the issues so that they become clear to see, in this way the conversation is about the issues and not the person - and it is the issues that we are solving together."
To establish a strong relationship with the new headteacher - especially in such challenging circumstances - Geraldine says that making time so that there is face to face contact is vitally important. "Even if this is half an hour, it will make a difference especially when moral support is needed. Avoid a transactional relationship as you need to bond and grow through the issues. Email and phone calls can cover day to day business but really critical exchanges that move you forward involve challenging conversations and good listening on both sides."
Geraldine adds: "Don't get stuck on the details that can result in never-ending discussions. The chair of governors needs to keep the big picture and key goals in mind, how you reach these at a school operational level is not part of the governors' role to be involved in."
You can access the full literature review for free at here.
Chris James is professor of education leadership and management at the University of Bath.