Headteacher Anne Clarke takes a close look at the roles and responsibilities of school governors and highlights the importance of creating a positive and trusting relationship with them.

Over the years I have worked with a variety of governing bodies and know that they can vary considerably. For the purposes of this article I shall write about developing a relationship that is positive and works for the benefit of all stakeholders, in particular the pupils in the school’s care.

Having spoken at length with heads and aspiring heads about working with the governing body, I have assimilated their opinions and formed a view on what most feel would help them to work well with their governors. A key element is mutual trust, but trust has to be earned on both sides. Heads are accountable to their governing bodies and new heads can expect to have to earn trust. Once the governors see that the head is an effective leader and manager, trust should follow.

Heads can always expect challenge from the governors. As a head myself, I expect governors to raise questions over what is presented to them. Challenge does not have to be negative and antagonistic – it can be provided in the mode of ‘critical friend’ and ‘responsible governor’. Heads would want to feel that they had the support of their governors. However, as governors have significant statutory powers and duties, they are within their rights – and owe it to the other stakeholders – to raise questions or to take action if they suspect or have good reason to believe that matters in the school are going awry.

Mutual trust and support can only exist where statutory procedures are being adhered to, monitoring and evaluating procedures show performance at or above target and the school is giving value for money. A dip in performance would not necessarily lead to a breakdown in relationships, as long as the head could provide a reason for the outcomes, and produce an action plan showing how the situation could be remedied.

Under workforce reform the governing body now has an undertaking to ensure the work-life balance of the headteacher. At the recent National Association of Head Teachers conference (April 2006), heads made the point that they were working too many hours a week. This is obviously a point for heads to discuss with their governors.

Shared vision

It is vital that the headteacher has a vision for the school that is shared with the staff and pupils. In turn, this needs to be shared with the governing body. The head and the governors – and indeed all members of the school community – need to be moving in the same direction.

That does not mean that debate cannot take place en route, but the steer has to be clear and consistent. The governing body establishes a statutory framework for the school by setting the aims and objectives, and many schools now have a mission statement. If the head’s vision encompasses these aims and objectives, then he or she is bound to be in unison with the governing body and to present a vision that is readily understood and accepted.

Statutory responsibilities

A Guide to the Law for School Governors has just been published (April 2006) and the website www.governornet.co.uk is also very useful. These make it quite clear what the powers of the governing body are and what responsibilities rest with the head and the leadership team. I mention leadership team, as the head will not be leading on all areas of school life, particularly in a large secondary school.

Roles need to be defined. It has to be clear who is responsible for what. Governors can expect their headteacher to be the leader of the school and have responsibility for its management, that is, the day-to-day running of the school. Governance is the carrying-out of the statutory responsibilities. The guide clarifies who deals with what, in other words, at which level the governing body may legally delegate functions. When looking at the list of functions below, it is obvious that some of these powers have to be delegated to the head:

  • budgets
  • premises and insurance
  • staffing
  • health and safety
  • curriculum
  • school organisation
  • performance management
  • information for parents
  • target setting
  • governing body procedures
  • discipline and exclusions
  • federations
  • religious education and collective worship
  • extended schools.

Governors are very busy people in their own right. Some might visit the school when it is in operation to fulfil their monitoring duties or to see the head, but many who work full time are only able to attend evening meetings. Also, although they can claim expenses, this onerous function is unpaid and, to be fair to governors, it seems they do not even claim expenses, or at least that has been my experience. Therefore, delegation is the only way that the work can be covered. However, there are certain aspects of the above functions that cannot be delegated to the headteacher and these are as follows:

  • approval of the school budget
  • head and deputy appointments (and disciplinary procedures relating to the head)
  • agreeing a pay policy
  • determining the staff complement
  • determining dismissal payments and early retirement
  • establishing a performance management policy
  • agreeing and monitoring a curriculum policy
  • establishing a discipline policy
  • review of exclusions over 15 days
  • buildings issues, insurance and personal liability, including health and safety regulations
  • maintaining regulations on school organisation
  • adoption and review of home-school agreements
  • governing body procedures
  • decisions on federations
  • decisions on additional activities provided under extended schools.
  • have chosen examples relating to community schools but appreciate that there are variations for voluntary aided schools, schools of a religious character and foundation schools, particularly with regard to admissions, premises, health and safety and religious education.

Although the above decisions cannot be delegated to the headteacher, some may be delegated to sub-committees – although the governing body as a whole remains responsible for any decision made under delegation. There are certain functions that cannot be delegated to a sub-committee:

  • the constitution of the governing body
  • the appointment or removal of the chair or vice-chair
  • the appointment of the clerk
  • the suspension of governors
  • the delegation of functions
  • the establishment of committees.

However, the governing body can still perform functions it has delegated. For the appointment of heads and deputies, the governors would appoint a selection panel but the full governing body would ratify the appointment. It is also common practice for the full governing body to approve the setting of the annual budget. Finally, the expectation would be that the full governing body would undertake decisions on federations and extended schools.

The governors’ committees

Committees are where much of the work of the governing body takes place. The statutory powers of the governing body are wide ranging, as already described, so it would not be efficacious to expect these complex issues to be discussed fully by a group of over 20 people. Dividing the work up into bite-size chunks makes it more digestible. The common committees are usually:

  • personnel
  • finance
  • premises
  • curriculum, often including pupil welfare.

An article in the Guardian (18 April 2006) explained how a large secondary school had agreed on a revised model of five committees:

  • standards and performance, including self-evaluation
  • finance and facilities
  • human resources
  • curriculum and student welfare
  • marketing and public relations.

I would caution against too many committees, especially for the head if s/he is expected to attend them all. One positive aspect that came out of my first performance management with the external adviser was a reduction in the number of governors’ sub-committees we ran. We had five and have reduced the number to four by amalgamating finance with premises, which fit well together as most items regarding premises involve related funding.

I think it is important for other members of the leadership team to attend governors’ meetings. All the leadership group at my school attend full governing body meetings and all are attached to a sub-committee. They are the ones who report to governors on issues that they are dealing with. I would not want to take credit for a policy I had not written, or a good decision I had not made. It is common practice for other members of staff to make presentations to governors and, on occasions, pupils have made representations on matters concerning the student body.

A crucial relationship

The relationship between the headteacher and the chair of governors is crucial to the smooth running of the school. A head needs to feel trusted by the chair of governors to handle the day-to-day running of the school, but also that the chair is readily available to offer advice and support. This trust has to be earned but there are obvious performance indicators that a chair can rely upon to feel that his or her trust is well placed:

  • the school reaches its target for examination success
  • a good Ofsted report
  • staff morale appears high
  • the chair is not in receipt of letters of complaint
  • the way that the head equips him/herself at governors’ meetings
  • the school is complying with the DfES initiatives and moving in a forward-looking direction
  • the budget is balanced and the finances are in order.

If the above indicators are dominant, there is no reason why trust should not be placed in the head. Clearly, if any of the above are not in place, then the chair would have reason to doubt the head’s performance and would need to take appropriate action.

However, if the head is performing well, then he or she needs to be allowed to get on with the job, as long as they make themselves accountable to the governing body and meet all statutory requirements. To work alongside an obstructive chair can make the job of headship almost impossible. There are enough pressures on heads and they need a chair on whom they can rely, not one who plays a power game and tries to undermine them.

I am eternally grateful that I have a supportive chair of governors; in fact, a caring and responsive governing body in total. The chair has been particularly supportive of my own career development, allowing me to become a consultant leader with the National College for School Leadership and latterly to be a facilitator on the International Headteacher Programme, which has given me the opportunity to engage in education on a worldwide platform. I have ensured that my experiences have impacted on the school and this year we are applying for international status. I want to show that I have earned the trust placed in me and I want to put something back into the school with an international dimension.
However, I know of chairs of governors who refuse to allow their heads such opportunities. I know there could be extenuating circumstances, for example the school has just received a poor Ofsted report or there is no deputy suitably experienced to run the school during the head’s absence. If, however, the school is in a strong position, then it must put a strain on the relationship if chairs of governors limit heads’ opportunities, rather than letting them grow by allowing them to participate when opportunities are opened up to them.


I am a great believer in accountability. We live in a litigious society and heads are in a very vulnerable position. Along with our governing body we serve a number of stakeholders – pupils, parents, staff and members of the local community – all of whom can ask us to justify our actions at any time. With this in mind, it is clearly essential to have the backing of the governing body.

Governors have great powers but as they are not in school on a daily basis they have to rely on the headteacher and the leadership group to carry out their functions, once approval has been given and duties delegated via their various sub-committees. I have found it advisable to pass most of the work of the school under the supervisory eyes of the governing body. That way you have their tacit support in advance of any future challenge. With them on board, success is not necessarily guaranteed – but it is more likely.


School self-evaluation is at the heart of the New Relationship with Schools and is captured in the self-evaluation form (SEF). The head and leadership group take the lead in carrying out self-evaluation, but governors can be actively engaged with the processes. The governors would, of course, agree the judgements recorded in the SEF and sign it off. This would go side by side with the school improvement or development plan.

A year ago, my school set up the Governors’ Monitoring and Evaluating Group, which comprises three governors whose remit is to take an aspect of the workings of the school, monitor it and then present a report to the full governing body with points for the school to act upon.

Striving for harmony

There is no denying the huge responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the governing body in carrying out a wide range of statutory functions. Governors are accountable to all those members of the community who have a vested interest in the school, whether they send their children to the school, attend an evening class held on the school premises, or are simply local taxpayers.

To sum up, in order for these functions to be made a reality, many tasks are delegated to sub-committees or the headteacher, who has the responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school. The relationship between the head and the governing body, in particular the chair of governors, is crucial to the success of the school. The aim should be to establish a harmonious working relationship based upon trust and mutual support. Notwithstanding this, the governing body has the right to challenge the head, and both the head and the governors are fully accountable to the stakeholders – no one should lose sight of this.