OFSTED is due at the school tomorrow, and the head wants to discuss a serious staff issue with the governing body. There's only one problem: the chair is sick. Which is where the vice-chair comes in, writes Denise Bates.
The vice-chair's role may sometimes seem unimportant, but governing bodies neglect it at their peril. The vice-chair has to be able to play a dual role. First, he or she must be ready, often at short notice, to take over as temporary leader. This might coincide with an OFSTED inspection or a sudden crisis. Second, and less dramatically, the vice-chair must be willing and able to provide reliable support for the chair.
The work of governing bodies is becoming increasingly complex and time-consuming, and few chairs have time to become fully involved with every aspect of school life. The load has to be spread, and governors should not expect their chair to do everything on their behalf; selecting the vice-chair is an important collective decision of the governing body.
The best candidate is not necessarily a long-standing governor, or someone who has time to spare - although the latter helps as the vice-chair must be prepared to undertake the full range of chairman's duties. These include chairing meetings and leading the governing body, liaising with the headteacher, representing the school in public, and making emergency decisions. The office should go to someone who has the enthusiasm and ability to carry out all of these duties effectively.
Although the vice-chair has no automatic right to take the chair if the post becomes vacant, many governing bodies do see the vice-chair as the heir apparent, so developing his or her leadership skills is important. Governor training courses should include a session for chairs and vice-chairs covering the role of the chair, meeting procedures, and effective working practices.
As modesty or a fear of appearing over-ambitious can prove powerful deterrents, even for a keen and motivated governor, vice-chairs should be encouraged to undertake training if they do not have appropriate skills and experience. He or she should then be given opportunities to put the theory into practice. One way of gaining hands-on experience is by taking responsibility for sub-committees. This includes drawing up the agenda, organising and controlling the meeting, ensuring the accuracy of the minutes and presenting them to the full governors' meeting. The chair can even be a member of the committee and offer discreet advice and support to the less experienced colleague if necessary.
A wise chair will hand over some of his or her responsibilities to the vice-chair. This is mutually advantageous: the vice-chair can act from an informed position should the need arise, and the chair will be able to devote more time to fewer duties. When chair's briefing meetings are held the deputy should be invited to attend; as well as developing generic skills, the vice-chair needs to be aware of current educational and policy issues. An experienced chair and vice-chair may arrange to attend alternate meetings, briefing each other as necessary.
The vice-chair should be fully involved in liaison with the school. If it is not practicable for him or her to attend meetings between the chair and the head, the vice-chair can still take an interest in issues affecting the deputy head or heads of department. Where the vice-chair has a professional skill or personal interest, he or she should be encouraged to take a lead in those areas; many governing bodies now set up projects to look at specific issues.
Spreading the workload can also help the chair to avoid accusations that he or she is power-crazy. Good chairs learn to delegate and empower other governors. The Department for Education and Employment has identified reluctance to take the chair as a weakness of governing bodies, so it makes sense to develop the skills of the vice-chair, even when the succession is not an issue.
Denise Bates is the acting chair of governors at a school in the North-west