March 2013


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Governance is an important focus for Ofsted inspections in colleges and is now increasingly so for schools. In a new report, charity CfBT looks at what education can learn from other sectors to help make the governing body more effective.

Board spectrum


Strengthening the role played by governing bodies in education has risen up the political agenda under the coalition government. Now the charity CfBT Education Trust has published a report highlighting the key messages from a range of research into the role of the board chair in private, public and third sector organisations and suggesting lessons that schools could draw for their chairs of governors. Many of the insights will apply equally to colleges.

Relationship with the CEO/head

The research literature makes clear that the board chair and chief executive are roles that should be taken by different people. In a school or college setting, this translates into the chair being responsible for the functioning of the governing body while the head oversees the functioning of the school. It may sound obvious to an experienced head or principal but it’s important to clarify the distinction as it helps to delineate each one’s different ‘territories’.

The chair/head relationship also has a material effect on the effectiveness of the board and the organisation. It influences the nature
of the governing body and gives rise to different governing body types.
If it is too close, for example, then it can lead to the chair failing to
scrutinise the h head suffificiently (see ‘Complementary relationships’ next). But if the relationship functions well, not just the governing body but the whole organisation will benefit.

In good relationships, each partner is a source of knowledge for the other but for that to be the case the relationship needs to be of high quality, characterised by high levels of trust, integrity and openness.

Complementary/complimentary relationships

In ‘complementary’ relationships, the board and the board chair seek to understand the context for the CEO’s responsibility and role and then provide what is required.

In ‘complimentary’ relationships, on the other hand, a chair seeks to smooth things over, fails to face up to important issues, gives undue praise and acts in a polite or even distant manner. These relationships are unproductive and tend to produce bad outcomes, such as board
members becoming competitive. They may also trigger a crisis of confidence in those outside the organisation. (See
box below article for more on this.)

Relationships with stakeholders

In an organisation, the chair of the board represents the governing system to the operating system – which, in a school or college, translates as the chair representing the board of governors to the staff, students and parents. Board chairs of many important organisations publish an annual report for their shareholders and it’s something that schools, colleges and their governing bodies could consider as part of managing the relationships with their own stakeholders.

Effective board chairs also play a role alongside the CEO in linking and engaging with the wider environment – which for a school or college would be the local community. They also represent their organisation to other specific organisations, such as Ofsted and the local authority. As
such they are helping to manage the organisation’s ‘boundary’ – the
point at which it interacts with others. This aspect of the role is particularly important in relatively small organisations, including schools.


Boards are usually diverse groups, a point that many chairs who lead
governing bodies that include members of staff, parents and members of the community, will recognise.

The chair’s leadership is key to welding together these individuals into a team that, collectively, has greater capability than the individuals alone, but he/she should also be ready to let others take the lead according to the situation and people’s particular strengths. It is also the role of the chair to confront those individuals who disrupt the team and its work.

A general point is that, like all good leaders, good chairs of governors create the conditions that engage others in working to achieve agreed goals.


Good chairs of governors will readily acknowledge the importance of a range of training and development – as a governor before they take
up the position, in preparation for becoming a chair, and to keep up to
date with developments once in post. Arguably, says the report, all chairs should continually ask themselves the questions: What are my training and development needs? What is the best way of meeting them?

ASCL runs a number of courses suitable for chairs of governors, including ‘The challenges of leadership’ mini-conferences. For details see the ASCL website.

Interestingly, one study of board chairs in the voluntary sector found that chairmen and women tended to rate their own impact more highly than did their CEOs, board members and other key people in the organisation. It underlines how important it is for chairs to receive feedback on their performance.


Clearly, there are some key differences between how governance operates in other sectors and its role in education. But the report suggests that that there are enough similarities to allow schools and colleges to draw some potentially innovative lessons from elsewhere that could improve the performance of their governing body and, ultimately, the outcomes for young people.


The report pinpoints some general areas for improvement:

  • The chair’s responsibility for the functioning of the school governing
    body could be made more explicit.
  • The perception of the chair of governors as a leadership responsibility and role needs to be strengthened.
  • A substantial part of the chair of governors role is “boundary work”:
    managing what crosses the boundary into and out of the governing
    system; being active in the school and the school’s wider community; and being the public face of the governing body.
  • Improving the quality of the headteacher-chair relationship is likely to benefit both school and governing body.
  • High-quality training for chairs is essential.

The complementary role

The critical issue that chairs and headteachers need to pay attention to is the importance of their relationship and making it work, says Tony McAleavy, CfBT’s education director. Being able to acknowledge when it is not working and knowing how to access support to repair and renew the relationship is paramount. “Getting this relationship right and creating good complementary relationships rather than weak complimentary ones is the key. Having a chair who challenges their headteacher is vital; often headteachers were found to view the relationship in a positive light when in fact things were not working from
the point of view of the chair. One of the challenges for the board chair and the chair of governors who seeks to play the complementary role is the potential danger of being ‘positioned’ in a particular set of behaviours. Over time, it could limit their ways of working and harm their overall functioning. These questions may help chairs of governors
to reflect on their role.

What are the Messages for Chairs of School Governing Bodies in
by the Chair of Governors Research Project, funded by CfBT,
can be downloaded at