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Is your chair too comfy?

We must ensure chairs of governing bodies do not use their emergency powers lightly, says Gerald Haigh

IMAGINE a chair from hell - one who colludes with the head to nobble the next governors' meeting, uses emergency powers to overturn any inconvenient decisions that slip past, and then goes on to manipulate the appointments process in order to install a friend as headteacher.

Such troubles with the chair of governors do happen (though perhaps not all at once) and are a common topic in the governors' forum on The TES website.

This is in spite of the clear principle enshrined in law that the chair is essentially just another governor and therefore has no individual powers other than limited ones that might or legally can be delegated.

Part of the problem lies in the contentious business of "chair's action". This is intended to cover those times when an urgent governing body decision is needed and there isn't time to call a meeting. "Urgent", according to the regulations, means that delay would be "seriously detrimental" to the interests of the school, or any pupil, parent, or staff member.

In these (rare) circumstances the chair can take a decision, but the rules say it must be examined by the whole body at the next meeting - and they can overturn it if they feel it's not in line with school policy, or statutory requirements.

It is important to remember, too, that the chair can't take action on matters which the regulations say cannot be delegated. These range from the appointment of co-opted governors to deciding if sex education should be on the curriculum. These issues rarely need instant decisions anyway.

But many schools allow chairs to use emergency powers too freely . Here's a real example.

Three weeks before the end of the summer term a secondary head was asked by a chief education officer if the deputy head could be released in September to spend a term at a school where the head had unexpectedly resigned and other senior staff were inexperienced.

This, clearly, was a matter for the governors so the head rang the chair. She judged that there wasn't time to call a meeting and decided herself to allow the deputy to go.

When other governors were told about this they demanded a meeting, which took place in the summer holidays. They didn't overturn the decision, but gave the chair a hard time, feeling that they should have had the chance to debate the move. The chief education officer accepted some blame, pointing out he had pressed for a quick decision.

Arguably, this was a marginal case. You'd think that most bodies could have got together in time to deal with this. It seems possible that the "urgency" was all about the authority's anxiety to get a tidy and quick solution to a problem that could have waited a few days. The fact that the chair took flak, though, shows the dangers of unsupported decisions.

From all this comes three lessons, one for chairs, one for heads, one for other governors:

* As chair, don't fall into the habit of using "chair's action" as a convenience. Your first reaction, regardless of pressure from outside, should be to stop and think about the possible consequences for yourself, for governor morale and efficiency, and for others in the school. Can you really not have a short governors' meeting within the available time? Will the issue really not wait, or are you actually being asked to get someone else out of a difficulty of their own making?

* As head, don't routinely ask your chair for decisions that should come from the governing body. You risk frustrating other keen governors, as well as possibly putting yourself and the chair in a difficult unprotected position if anything goes wrong.

* As governors, don't let your chair act without your authority. Call the chair to account and insist on proper debate except in extreme circumstances - and even then make sure there's a post mortem. The regulations are on your side.

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