Torn between two schools of thought

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
A chair of governors often has to hold the line while being pulled in opposing directions, writes Gerald Haigh from personal experience.

There was an ancient nation that punished criminals by tying them between two horses which were then goad-ed into galloping in opposite directions. Being a chair of governors is a bit like that. Here, from my own experience of the job, are some reasons why: uThe chair of governors should have a good personal relationship with the head. The chair has to understand how the head thinks and what his or her vision is. The head has few to confide in except me. If the head has an overwhelming problem or worry, I should be one of the first to know. And it should be possible for the two of us to have a quiet and confidential talk about it.

On the other hand, my relationship with the head should not be too cosy. The duty of the governors to the pupils demands this. The governors, after all, led by me, must be able to summon up the will to overrule - and in the last resort to discipline - the head.

uThe chair will almost inevitably develop a role which is in some ways different from that of the other governors. I may be told things before other governors. The head may consult me between meetings. The local authority may contact me for advice. Many a head will talk about "my chair of governors", clearly assuming an important relationship separate from that with the governing body as a whole.

On the other hand, no governor - including the chair - has any individual powers. Everything a governor does is by the authority of the governing body as a whole. Nowhere is it written that my position is any different from that of the other governors.

uBecause of my special relationship with the head andor the local authority, I often come to a governors' meeting armed with more background knowledge than the other governors have. As a result, I may feel duty bound to lead the meeting down a predetermined path. I may even work the meeting towards what seems to be the best conclusion, perhaps already agreed with the head or the authority. When this happens, I will go home satisfied - "Good meeting tonight, dear."

On the other hand, all governors are equal. All have the right to speak. All have the right to voice an opinion and have it debated. My is to ensure these rights are respected. An effective governors' meeting, therefore, is one where I have allowed a fair debate to reach a conclusion that everyone understands and with which most, if not all, have agreed. Particularly satisfying is the knowledge that the governors have not been railroaded into a predetermined position either by the head or by the authority. When this happens, I will go home satisfied - "Good meeting tonight, dear."

uGovernors' meetings are invariably too long. After an hour-and-a-half the agenda seems hardly to have been touched. There is much wasted time - one governor rambles on about what happened under the previous head. Another insists on angrily debating issues outside the remit of the governing body. Aanother raises a stream of questions that could be dealt with in a phone call to the school secretary. The head is visibly wilting. I must stamp on the ramblers and keep some discipline.

On the other hand, all the governors are deeply interested in the school and committed to it. Unlike me, they do not spend time chatting to the head on Friday afternoons - the meeting is virtually their only chance to air their views. I must give them time, and listen carefully, because apparently inconsequential contributions may conceal substantive and important issues.

uThe responsibility of being chair of governors weighs heavily. There is too much to read, too many courses and meetings to attend, too much happening. The position of chair is in danger of being a full-time job, requiring a spare room in the house for the associated documents and books. Even so, the head, and people at the office, keep mentioning directives, rules and procedures that seem to have slipped by me unnoticed. More reading is called for.

On the other hand, there really is no need to become bogged down with the papers and the details. What matters is the vision governors have for our school, and the quality of the relationships and the levels of understanding within the governing body, and between us and the rest of the school community. Every knowledge gap can be covered by a quick phone call. Any ignored or forgotten piece of paper will eventually be sent again or chased up if it is important enough.

Gerald Haigh is a chair of governors in a Warwickshire junior school

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