Putting the Success into Succession Planning

Sarah Beaumont BA (Hons) FRSA, Head of Governor Services at The Education Space, focuses on the importance of succession planning.

The scene is set: the election of chair is the next item on the agenda, the governance professional takes the floor to invite nominations, everyone looks down at their shoes, nobody stands. Invariably, the out-going chair reluctantly stands again, murmuring: “But this is for the last time!”

The autumn term finds governing and trust boards electing, re-electing, or searching for a Chair and, in my professional view, it is a little too late to find out only now that you don’t have a likely candidate.

Acting as the governance professional in such circumstances, there is only so much my team can provide at short notice: we can offer support to anyone thinking of taking on the role, stage one-to-one training over a coffee at Francis House, find a mentor who is an experienced chair to sound off and guide. We can also advise on the successes and pitfalls of co-chairing.

However, any seat-of-the-pants-eleventh-hour advice is no substitute for succession planning, and, whilst the coffee is pretty good at Francis House, this situation is better avoided. One of my favourite quotes from Tom J Peters - In Search of Excellence - is “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”

In a maintained school, the governing board is the body accountable for the conduct of the school. In a single academy trust (SAT), the responsible body is the trust, but its constitution is often modelled on that of a governing board and is often so-called. In a multi-academy trust (MAT), the role has been split with overall responsibility residing with the trust, but with some delegation to local governing boards. These local boards, more recently, are being described as local governing committees to avoid any confusion regarding where the decision-making power lies.

Nevertheless, all these bodies share much in common, not least in their structure. When it comes to managing the responsible body and ensuring smooth succession from one chair to the next, the principles to be followed are much the same, irrespective of the level of governance.

Traditionally, we tend to think of the leadership of the trust or governing board as being vested in the chair (and perhaps the vice-chair). However, for a board to be truly effective and guard against the impact of rapid change, it needs to distribute leadership.

Distributed leadership is, in fact, common among staff in many schools. In practice, it means that many members of the school are seen as leaders and tasks are delegated far and wide. For this to work, too, among trustees and governors, leaders need to be developed within the board.
In response to a potential long-term shortage of headteachers the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) encouraged schools to become more proactive in growing the next generation of leaders. They did this in several ways: by expanding opportunities – providing more openings for teachers to practise leadership skills; by widening the talent pool - including encouraging more women and minorities to take on leadership roles; by ‘talent spotting’ – actively identifying and encouraging leadership talent within the school; by leading beyond the school – encouraging opportunities in other schools and industries for leadership practice; and by promoting new models of leadership – federation, co-headship and executive headship. These strategies are equally applicable at board level.

Effective leadership of the board involves working towards a shared vision for school improvement, which all governors help to achieve, and working together to share responsibility and workload. According to the Department for Education’s ‘A Competency Framework for Governance’, everyone on the board must think strategically and work as a team for its leadership of the school to be robust. Good leadership entails the adoption of effective working practices that enable everyone to participate and develop leadership skills.

‘Succession Breeds Success’, a publication produced by the National Co-ordinators of Governor Services (NCOGS) sets out succession planning as a journey.

This journey begins by attracting and retaining good governors and trustees. Effective recruitment strategies may include strong engagement with parents, carers, and forged relationships with community and business links. Conducting a skills audit of the current board may also help to identify skills gaps and requirements.

This journey then moves to the development of the new governor. Sound induction should be provided initially from the school and then more formally from your governor training provider to set out the role.

When I lead induction training, I always say that every governor and trustee should use their experience of governance as an opportunity to personally develop themselves. And effective succession planning on the board can make life so much more fulfilling if it opens up a range of opportunities for this personal development.

The journey then moves to encouraging new governors and trustees to take on additional responsibility: joining a committee, linking with a school development plan priority, joining a working party, leading on an agenda item, taking on a specific area of specialism.

The next step on the journey is then to grow a team leader: chairing a committee, leading a working party, linking with an area of focus within the school, visiting the subject co-ordinator and then reporting back.

The next step is to ensure the effectiveness of the Chair of the board, through a clear understanding of the role, good delegation, development of the board, sound partnership working with the Head or Principal through regular meetings to provide appropriate challenge and support, operating as first among equals.

In recent years, co-chairing has become more common, and is an effective form of leadership when the responsibilities of each are clearly understood.

Finally, there is a maturity in knowing when to give up and step aside. Some Boards have a set term for Chair, which does not exceed two terms (eight years). To gain new blood and a fresh approach from the Chair of the Board is a healthy thing. It shows that the board is effective in its succession planning, and that individuals are being developed to be the leaders of tomorrow. Isn’t that what schools as organisations are all about anyway?