When it comes to the business meeting at the start of the academic year two roles need filling, namely that of the chair and vice chair. Understandably much thought is given as to who the most suitable candidate is for the role of chair, they are the flag bearer for the board, the face of the board to the wider school community and will lead on governance in your school. Often when it comes to selecting the vice chair there will be things said along the lines of ‘don’t worry, you don’t have to do much’ or ‘it’s just a title’ – what’s not said is if your chair is sidelined for any length of time or resigns then you will automatically step up into the role and assume all their responsibilities! It needs to be viewed as an understudy role where you are able to step up at a moment’s notice, be across the main issues and challenges in your school and continue to lead your board in the chair’s absence.
Quite often the vice chair is rarely called upon to step up but more commonly when succession planning is under discussion is the one person in the frame for the ‘top’ job. This can bring its own set of challenges, a quote about US vice presidents by Susan Estrich says ‘Vice presidents are supposed to be eternally loyal, which is why it is so difficult for some to figure out how to succeed their bosses’. This I think is often the case with Vice chairs following in the footsteps of longstanding, experienced and well regarded Chairs especially when they choose to remain on the board. The obvious concerns for the vice chair are not being able to live up to the reputation of their predecessor, feeling as if they are being bench marked against the previous incumbent and where they remain on the board feeling constrained in their ability to bring fresh thinking or new ideas without it being perceived as a slight on the previous chair.
Some of the perceptions about the vice chair role is the dearth of research, training or support specifically tailored or about the role. If we start with the DfEs School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) Regulations and look at the specific section on the ‘Role of the chair/ vice chair (Regs 7,8&9)’ in the 6 paragraphs there is only one substantive reference to the vice chair role and that merely refers to the role of being a support to the chair. In the Governance Handbook there is no specific section on the vice chair role and in its entirety, there are only 5 mentions of the role and none of them are defining the role beyond that of supporting the Chair other than the need to be effective! The DfEs document ‘Maintained School Governance -structures and role descriptors’ is slightly more expansive stating the role of vice chair is to ‘encourage the board to work together as an effective team, building its skills, knowledge and experience’. This I think hits the nail on the head and underlines the importance of the role, accepting that the chair will always be the lightening rod for criticism when school performance is challenged but equally feted when things are going well, the vice chair can quietly get on with their work, out of the limelight, and using this time to build their skill set to prepare for becoming chair in the future.
When the DfEs own documents make such scant reference to the role it can be of no surprise that the role is so often misunderstood. We are very clear in the governance team that the role is an important one requiring a range of skills and close working with your chair. A good chair will delegate work to the vice chair to share the load and share knowledge of what they are currently dealing with. Furthermore, you should be encouraged to join the Head/ chair meetings occasionally to keep abreast of matters and challenges between board meetings. An effective vice chair will cover a range of tasks including such things as mentoring new governors, handling early stages of complaints and suspensions/ exclusions proceedings, overseeing training and occasionally chairing an FGB meeting to gain experience to enable you to step in if required and prepare for succession planning. As vice chair you can act as a conduit between the board and chair, act as a sounding board for the chair, take on some lead link roles and if you have relevant skills, and time, chair one of the board committees. I think a key thing for vice chairs is to be relevant – returning to US vice president comparisons we all remember the names of the ones who were in lockstep with their presidents, who undertook high profile roles, who were supportive but not uncritical, who recognised their position and didn’t muddy the waters for the president of the day and who demonstrated the necessary skills to assume leadership. This is probably where my comparison of the roles comes a bit unstuck, because other than the current president I can’t think, in my lifetime, of any other VP becoming president! Rest assured many vice chairs go on to become chairs!
So if you are a vice chair please be assured you are a pivotal and critical member of the board, if you are a governor then please value and support your vice chair and if you are Chair please nurture and grow the skills and confidence of your vice chair – in doing this you are growing leadership talent from within and when the time for succession arrives you are ready and prepared for a smooth handover.
Through our Chairs Service we offer training, resources and briefings to support you in your role as vice chair or in order to take on the role, please contact us for further information.
Governance Helpdesk – 01438 544487