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Tough at the top

Is the demanding position of chairman becoming increasingly difficult to fill? Two very frustrated chairmen of governors contacted me recently. One complained bitterly about the unread pile of Department for Education and Employment circulars and LEA documents on his desk. He worried that they contained important legal requirements he may have overlooked. "They weigh 13 and a half lbs!" he exclaimed. I later found out that he was a potato merchant.

The other, a businessman working from home, signalled his intention to resign. The trouble was that he had run out of filing space for his governor papers whose volume far exceeded that of his business. He was also ideologically opposed to much current education legislation.

Both cases illustrate that being the chairman has largely changed from its ceremonial status of a decade ago to a position of real power and responsibility. Chairmen of governors of more than 24,000 maintained schools now preside over the increasingly influential decision-making body responsible for running the school. Today's chairmen are at the centre of a complicated web of relationships.

But given the recent TES survey which found that four out of five headteachers think that governors overstep the mark, is the position of chairman becoming more difficult to fill? Mike Booker, county manager for governor support and training in Cambridgeshire, doesn't think so. Since the chairmanship is a position which still "carries a bit of clout", he sees no problem in filling vacancies, especially in rural areas where governors want to accept "a position of responsibility, prestige and authority", though in some urban areas Mr Booker has heard reports that it can be "a struggle" to appoint chairmen.

Dave Evans, an education consultant and author of a Handbook for Chairmen of School Governors, has not noticed any difficulty in filling this key role: "It's not that they step forward and volunteer, it's just that all the rest step back very smartly." He described the chairman's common fate as "a no win situation. If their style is grandiose, they're seen to be aloof: if all the business gets left to the chair by default, then he's accused of fixing. "

Peter Earley's recent research, School Governing Bodies: Making Progress? reports that the chair is usually taken by experienced male governors who are older than their colleagues. Nearly half had a degree and a quarter hold a teaching qualification.

On average in term time chairmen spent five hours a week on their duties compared to just 40 minutes for other governors.

Carole Girling is chairman of governors of Batchwood Special (Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties) school, St Albans. A former teacher now working in business, she became an LEA governor two years ago. She believed her school, to which she was morally committed, needed support. She is interested in education, has people management skills and knows how to run meetings and get things done. This is why she was offered the top job within a year of becoming a governor.

She regards good relations with the head as vital: "I work with the head, in parallel. It's a dual partnership." She sees herself as a facilitator who is prepared to be devil's advocate if needs be. She finds the workload "horrific", especially in a small school where there are not enough governors to go round. Time constraints are a problem.

This is why Angus Milne, vice-chairman of Layston first school, Buntingford, Hertfordshire, has declined to take the chair. A governor for five years, he wanted to be of service to his local school. But, as someone who works full-time he has no time for the public role of the chairman: "The chair needs to be a visible governor who should have immediate contact with head, staff and children."

Susan Mountford resigned her governorship in August after eight years as a parent-governor, the last year spent as chairman of governors of South Hill primary, Hemel Hempstead. She had great respect for, and good relations with, the headteacher and found chairing very responsible with hardly a day going by without some activity, "It was very time-consuming and you constantly had to keep on top of it all." When she found an able successor she thought it time for new blood. She has spoken to many governors whose ideal chairman is someone who is recently retired. "It's a difficult job for anyone who is working. You need to be available during the day," she explained.

Carole Girling was concerned that, while there were many potential governors, there was no structured route to get the right people into the chair, "There should be a job description which is realistic about time commitment." She reckons she spends two nights weekly on chairing duties and copes by not being afraid to ask the LEA or others for help, "I don't worry about not knowing it all," she said.

David Evans's advice to would-be chairmen is, if in doubt, not to accept the role for purely honorific purposes or because your status (as parish priest or county councillor for example) causes others to defer to you. As he explains, "The chair's challenge is to be a dynamic leader without demotivating fellow governors. The chair's job is to release and harness the talents within the governing body, not to dominate and merely expect fellow governors to endorse the chair's action."

Dave Evans's book has just been substantially revised and is available from The School Support Unit, Education Dept, County Hall, Hertford, SG13 8DF, Pounds 15 (plus Pounds 1.50 p and p)

ALL YOU NEED FOR PERFECTION: A good chairman is: * active and experienced * able to run effective meetings * a delegator * a good teamplayer * able to get things done * good at motivating others * a headteacher's confidant(e) * good at relationships with the staff * available to act between meetings * a confident public speaker * an effective spokesperson * up to date with the legislation * knowledgeable about education * honest and loyal * keen to continue learning * prepared to ask for advice * energetic * forgiving * humble

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