19th April 1996 at 01:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions.

A long time ago when I was a new governor I heard you say in a throw-away line that most chairs' action was illegal. I think you said don't spend half your meeting on 'Chair's Action', because most of it is illegal anyway. Now I've been a governor for quite a long time, and I've often wondered about that and whether you were serious. We certainly do have a very long report every time on what the chair has done between meetings. If he weren't retired he couldn't do it and I'm not sure we only want elderly chairs.

Your last remark is very much to the point, and if we speeded up our reappraisal of the chair's role we should have a wider field to choose from. Don't forget though that it is up to you as governors: we all sit there and let things happen. It was a long time ago, and I am sorry to hear that what you describe still goes on. In my travels I find that increasingly chairs are young working people who are conscientious team builders and motivators, but who don't think it necessary or right to spend all the time between meetings making decisions on our behalf. What I meant was that the idea of the chair as action taker is not supported by current education law, which gives the chair no scope for action except in an emergency. An emergency is a fire or flood, not the fact that a decision is needed and the governors don't meet until next month: that's just bad planning.

Short of a dire emergency so defined the chair does of course plant trees, present badges, thank people, open new buildings, but these ceremonial functions are not what I had in mind, and even these are shared out in some schools through a duty governor system. What I meant was authorising expenditure outside the budget approved by the finance committee; approving major changes to a building project in progress; sanctioning the upgrading of a teacher or a major curriculum change. These are the illegal decisions. The chair has no power except to convey decisions made by the governors or act in accordance with powers legally delegated by them, and the latter can only be very limited. An example of a legally delegated decision is when the finance committee have decided, say, that if money is needed in the school to pay for something under a heading already fully spent, up to Pounds 500 may be moved from an underspent heading with the chair's approval.

Proper planning can avoid most of the decisions needed between meetings. Encourage your head to look forward with you in hisher termly report, so that you plan your work, your delegation and your meeting dates around matters needing decision, turn a committee date into a full governors' meeting now and then, authorise the chair to act, if necessary with a range of options on different assumptions. You can't eliminate the unexpected altogether, but most things are foreseeable.

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