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