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A governor is worthy of his hire

07 June 2013

Paying someone to chair the board of governors can be beneficial to a school, says Tom Peryer

PAID chairs of governors? Whatever next? Before you know it, they will be paying for organists, youth workers, and who knows what else. But, yes, it is true: some chairs of governors are now paid. And I confess to being one of them - besides being an unpaid chair of governors in another school.

Four years ago, after I had stepped out into the freelance world, I was asked to take on the chairmanship of a sponsored academy in one of the more deprived areas of Leeds, where more than half the pupils are eligible for free school meals.

The sponsor was opening its first secondary schools that September, and it had a tough challenge on its hands: all of the schools had predecessor maintained schools, and, by definition, their performance ranged from mediocre to poor, and their locations were not leafy settings.

One of the things that had not "worked" in my predecessor school was governance. There was the usual "stakeholder" representation of governors, but the skills, knowledge, experience, and available time of those governors were not up to the challenges faced by the school.

Four years later, and - thanks to a combination of factors, including excellent people (both staff and governors) - the school is going from strength to strength. Some numbers are going up, such as the number of students getting good GCSE passes in English and maths; and some are going down, such as incidents of persistent absence, or poor behaviour. We are oversubscribed on first preferences from the locality, and have now started to partner another school, which is four years behind us on the improvement curve.

All well and good, I hear you say; but there are plenty of such success stories, and they have not needed a paid chair of governors. Absolutely true, but, in some circumstances, a paid chair of governors is one strategy (linked to others) for pushing a school up the school improvement hill, and for keeping it there.

There are three particular features that make the paid chair option attractive: accountability, time, and expertise.

First - and probably most important - there is the clear- accountability dimension of a paid chair, best illustrated through the use of "hire-and-fire".

Governing bodies are often told that the most important decision they make is the appointment of a head teacher. That is rarely said of the chair of governors, who, in all maintained schools, and in most of the converter academies, is elected by his or her fellow governors, not appointed.

Anyone who knows anything about school governance knows that very often the person elected chair is simply not up to the job, and that is not necessarily his or her fault. The chair may be in that position because no one else was willing to stand, and just stepped up to the mark, for which praise is due; but this does not make him or her necessarily a good chair. And, once elected, a chair who does not want to go can be surprisingly difficult to dislodge. Governors are not usually politicians jockeying for power and used to intrigues and cabal; so, when the item "Election of Chair" is on the agenda, it is rare to find a genuine vote or an attempt at a palace coup.

Although it is increasingly common for local-authority officers and sponsors (not usually governors) to have tough conversations with head teachers these days, if their leadership is questionable, the same is not true for chairs of governors. It is very rare for anyone to take a chair of governors aside and say: "I think you should consider stepping down."

But, in the case of a paid chair, there can be a proper appointment process and a corresponding process for ending the appointment -either after a fixed period of time, or if the performance of the chair is judged to be less than good or outstanding.

The second feature associated with a paid chair is time. In her interview with Margaret Holness, the hugely impressive Margaret Mountford, chair of the equally impressive St Marylebone School, reveals that her time commitment to the school is about a day a week, equivalent to 40-50 days per year. This must be at the top end of the spectrum for schools, but probably not for schools that are in a crisis of one sort or another - a special-measures judgement being the most obvious.

But even in schools that are "running smoothly" the time expectations on a chair of governors are considerably greater than those of an ordinary governor, who will already be making a significant commitment. This rules out most working professionals, including those who, in their day job, have significant leadership and management positions.

As a paid chair of governors, I am contracted for a fixed number of paid days a year; in addition, I give additional days on apro bonobasis, equivalent to the number of days a regular governor might give.

This means that I spend whole days in a school rather than twohour slots in committee meetings at the end of the school day. I can sit in on meetings of the senior leadership team, get to know the staff better (not easy for a governor in a large secondary), and generally engage with the school on key activities.

It is not the case that an unpaid, elected chair cannot also do this; but with a paid chair this can be 100 per cent guaranteed.

The third feature that makes the position of paid chair worth considering, in particular circumstances, is expertise: the governing body, or the sponsor (or the local authority in the case of an Interim Executive Board), can appoint someone who knows his or her stuff, educationally.

Every OFSTED report of a failing or coasting school will refer to the fact that governors did not challenge enough; did not ask the right questions; or did not know which questions to ask. Governors understandably defer to the head teacher's greater knowledge and judgement.

A new governor is immediately confronted and bewildered by data and references, equivalent to professionals speaking in tongues. A head's report is splashed all over with acronyms, percentages, comparisons and educational assertions. Many governors' eyes glaze over when they are faced with budget reports, Raiseonline, and now Pupil Premium analyses.

Whoever appoints a paid chair can ensure that the person appointed really does have the knowledge and skills to fit the job. This is likely to include, at the least, experience of leading teams, chairing meetings, analysing data, and writing reports. They are more than likely to have a background in education, and will be on equal or more than equal terms with the head teacher and senior leadership team.

Are we likely to see a move to 22,000 paid chairs of governors? Highly unlikely. Do the economics work for average, or smaller than average, primary schools? No. But it might work for the chair of a federation, or multi-academy trust with several primaries in it. And, in times of crisis, or, when there is a very large school or groups of schools, it is definitely an option to be considered.


Tom Peryer is a Reader in the Church of England, and a former diocesan director of education for the London and Bath & Wells dioceses. Besides being a paid chair of governors, he is also the voluntary chair of a church school in Bath, where the headteacher is National Primary Headteacher of the Year.

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