Living with an uneasy chair

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

I am having such a lot of trouble with our chair of governors. I cannot get him to accept that education is more than simply teaching the children a narrow bank of academic skills and knowledge. He sniffs at citizenship being part of the curriculum, or personal and social education, which he thinks should be the responsibility of the family. Whenever the staff and governors spend time sharing values and beliefs about what the school's core purpose is, he hijacks the meeting, either by conveying strong non-verbal dismissive messages, or reading aloud cuttings of articles by right-wing newspaper columnists. I have had many one-to-one discussions with him, but he is implacable.I almost think that he's enjoying baiting me. He has removed his child and put him into a private school. Is this a good reason to ask him to step down? He has brilliant organisational skills, which is why he has been re-elected as chairman.

There are, worryingly, far too many instances where heads have uncomfortable relationships with governors. This is not surprising, given the huge variance in the make-up, style, background, ability and tone of schools.

It would be interesting to know just how many heads struggle to negotiate an effective working partnership with their governing body. Several heads of my own acquaintance have been through difficult times, have felt isolated and undermined, and describe debilitating experiences which cause them to lose sleep or at worst to feel that there is no other option but to resign.

The first thing to understand is that your chair - who has been elected, and more than once - Jis there to stay unless he himself decides to go.

There are very few circumstances which warrant a request to step down: prolonged non-attendance, for example, or behaviour which threatens the well-being of the school. The second thing to come to terms with is that you have not succeeded in persuading him to change his views. Your private discussions have left you with the same polarised beliefs, and your whole-school discussions have failed to bring about that metamorphosis which you seek.

The decision to remove his child is significant, though, and it is this which could warrant his stepping down. He has made a clear statement of his lack of faith in the school. It is surprising, in the circumstances, that he chooses to continue in his role as governor, and this must be explored.

Your governors may well take the view that he has acted against the ethos of the school and may suggest suspension. I am wondering why it is that they have not seen fit to do this. What was the lead-up to his decision? To what extent have you listened carefully to his concerns, investigated them and taken action? Or have you simply agreed that, in the light of his expectations of what school is for, the school doesn't fit the bill?

One thing is clear: what you have done so far has not worked. He remains philosophically at odds with you, and is seemingly comfortable with that position.

This is the time to seek external advice. You need to share your concerns with the vice-chair. The role of the governing body, at its most simplistic level, is to ensure that the school complies with statutory requirements.

You need to persuade the vice-chair to agree to bring in an adviser - your local education authority should have a governors' support service - in order that there is clarity about the collective accountability of the governing body. Consult the Department for Education and Skills website and refer to the Governors' Guide to the Law.

Ideally, heads want every governor to share and hold the same set of beliefs and understanding, but it can't be guaranteed. If you continue to invest so much emotional energy in trying to change this man's mindset, your levels of resilience and resourcefulness will be depleted. Take a deep breath and let it go. You have provided ample opportunity for debate, and you have a general alignment of views with only one person out of step.

Now concentrate on your staff and pupils. Let your chair do what he does best - creating and maintaining efficient systems which enable the governing body to run a health check on the school's policies and practices. Is every aspect of the school demonstrating practice in accordance with its agreed aims and values, or is there something jarring? Tell your chairman that you're opting out of the ideological argument.

Invite him to put his skills to good use and recognise the contribution that he can make to a governing body which gets the balance right between support and scrutiny.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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