May 26, 2014

How long is too long? Should chairs of governors' terms of office be time limited…?

claire de lune final

Thanks to the brilliant @sdupp on twitter for permission to use this image

This is fairly unusual in itself, but I read an article in the Telegraph recently. It was by a headteacher, explaining why, after eight years he is leaving his position as Master of Wellington College (independent school). If you have time I strongly suggest you read his moving story in full. His reasons are linked to his wife’s terminal illness, but he also comments: “I am leaving also because I believe I have done all that I can, and a fresh figure is needed to take the school forward. The school is heavily in demand. The results next year will put us in the Top 25 in Britain, and an inspection report last term gave us the top rating in every aspect. I do not want to be one of those leaders who stays on too long.”

This reminded me of a conversation I had on twitter a few weeks ago and a blog I said I’d write. I’ve storified the conversation if you want to read it in full. It was also one of the topics for #ukgovchat that evening, and you can read the full discussion here.

This blog isn’t part of the current series I’m writing about lessons learnt from reviews of governance but it could be. It’s not unusual to review a governing body and come to the conclusion that there needs to be a change of chair. And sometimes that’s about length of tenure, though it’s always also related to competence of course. In some way or other, if it’s an Ofsted-related review, I will always ask a long-standing chair (though I *might* be more tactful than this) “Given that you’re the person that led the governing body into this situation, what makes you think you’re the right person to lead it out?”. Sometimes we just need a fresh approach, a new way of looking at things, some impetus to bring change.

What’s surprised me a bit on this topic is how very strongly held some extremely diverse views are. The National Governors’ Association, who I have enormous respect for, has a policy that chairs should not remain in post for more than six years continuously in the same school.

Lord Nash said in his speech to the NGA summer conference last year: “Chairs can sometimes stay in post too long and, because everyone’s too polite to put the interests of children first, can, themselves, become the barrier to change and progress. Which is why I think governors should think really hard about appointing a chair for, say, no more than 2 terms of office. And if, at that point, the chair is still doing a great job, governors could consider encouraging the chair to take up the mantle of a system leader and train up their vice-chair, so they, themselves, can move on and help another school.” [‘two terms of office’ equates to eight years I think].

Opponents to the idea say that there is a learning curve to being a chair, and why should someone who is effective be removed because of such an arbitrary rule?

So why even consider this? Why is it so often the case that terms of office are limited, even including that of the president of the United States?

For me it’s about keeping things fresh, bringing different leadership styles, new approaches, ensuring that one individual can’t stamp their own identity on things for too long. When I’ve spoken to chairs who are extremely long standing about the possibility of standing down, the reasons for not doing so are often about them (‘I would miss it’) rather than about what’s in the best interest of the school or the children. That’s what Lord Nash meant when he said “we’re too polite to put the interests of children first”.

One of the tweets in the conversation I had mentioned the lack of alternative candidates. I believe that if that’s the case it demonstrates the chair’s failure in effectively succession planning. In any case it’s very difficult for new candidates to come forward when a long-standing chair is in post. We’re just too polite to say, ‘I think I could do a better job here’. Some would argue that it’s the governing body’s responsibility to remove the chair if they’re not effective, and I agree. But in practice it’s very difficult to do, and people are often hurt in the process, because as volunteers our identities become wrapped up in what we do, in a way that doesn’t often happen in employment. It would be so much easier if it weren’t permitted to serve beyond eight years continuously.

Opponents to the idea say that there is a learning curve to being a chair, and why should someone who is effective be removed because of such an arbitrary rule? Of course any time limit is arbitrary. When I asked the NGA for the rationale behind six years they said: two four year terms as a governor, two years to prepare and six years as chair. But in my experience things rarely follow such a controlled and predictable route. I haven’t yet had chance to discuss with Lord Nash why he has chosen eight years. Whatever time limit was decided upon, if this became statutory, it would be somewhat arbitrary, and there would inevitably be some excellent chairs removed at the end of the period.

Having worked with many governing bodies over many years however, I’m convinced that the overall system benefit would be a positive one. There are just too many chairs who’ve been in post too long, who don’t see the benefit of considering new ideas and embracing change. I meet too many governors on induction courses who say, ‘but I never get chance to speak or suggest anything because of the way my chair runs things’. And it’s an excellent idea also that experienced chairs should share their experience with the wider system by moving schools and considering becoming system leaders.

Incidentally, cohort 6 recruitment for National Leaders of Governance begins in the autumn term.

Another tweet asked whether the same rule should be applied to headteachers. Well the quote at the beginning of this post seemed to think so and I can see that the same arguments could apply. But that’s a much more complex issue because a headteacher’s livelihood is tied up with them remaining in post, and there are the small considerations of employment law to consider. Not so with chairs and my view remains, whatever the potential downsides, the overwhelming impact of limiting chairs’ terms would be positive, forcing us to take succession planning seriously instead of looking around half-heartedly and saying ‘there’s no one else ready to step up, I’ll just have to do another year…’

And don’t even get me started on those who say – ‘it’s a church school and I’m the vicar/priest so I HAVE to be chair…’

I look forward to your comments.


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