25th June 1999 at 01:00
Answers your questions

My chairperson is superb: knowledgeable about the law and the education system, wise, tactful and supportive. I feel secure when she agrees with me, but the involvement of other governors is almost non-existent. They rarely visit the school, don't attend all that regularly, and rely on the chair for everything. There is rarely any discussion worth the name. It sounds awful, but I can't help feeling that I'm lucky my governing body is well led and makes the right decisions without fuss.

Of course you are lucky to have a good chair. But is she a good chair?

She's obviously a brilliant personal adviser, and with her knowledge and judgment it isn't surprising that the rest of the governors find it easy to follow her lead. They probably think they are lucky too.

But it wasn't the intention of the law-makers to establish a personal adviser for every headteacher, and although you may well sail through the rest of your career without meeting trouble the relationship is potentially dangerous. Only the governing body has power to decide, to advise, to warn. The individual power of the chair is confined to emergencies, where he or she may take action to protect the school if there isn't even time to call a special meeting.

The idea of having an assorted group of people, drawn from the school community and the wider community, to shape the school's policies is to get a broad base of support for its actions. That support protects you, but not if it is secured without debate or real understanding. If the chair is wise and knowledgeable, it must be tempting for the rest of the governors to accept her guidance and be grateful, and once this becomes a habit it is very difficult for anyone with a doubt to express it. Doubt then becomes dangerous.

There are many clever people who haven't learned that it isn't enough to be right: you must also take others with you. If your chair gets her way too easily she may even in time get careless about going through the motions.

So what could go wrong, you want to know. Well, apart from complacency making her accident-prone, your chair risks the possibility that the school may make a decision, especially on a personnel matter, where anyone with a grievance and the resources to go to law could exploit the fact that the decision wasn't made in accordance with regulations. That has happened.

If there is unexpressed doubt within the governing body, that could then be exploited too. Or some decision could unexpectedly upset parents, or cut across some community interest, and you would have lost the chance of a timely warning from a governor with an ear to the ground. The fall-out could well damage the reputation of the governing body as well as you.

Or governors suddenly find themselves in the spotlight - an accident on a school trip, say, or a critical Office for Standards in Education inspection could expose lack of real participation. Simmerings of dissent might then suddenly become very destructive.

I think you should share these thoughts with your admirable chair, and see if together you can embark on a programme of team-building, promoting debate, discovering individual strengths and using them, so that, in time, governors begin to feel real ownership of what is decided in their name.

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