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School governance 101

By Michael Willis

I am always impressed by the commitment of schoolteachers to keep informed and aware of their professional knowledge. Schools invest considerable time, effort and funds to keep their teachers at the leading edge of education.

What amazes me is the contrary attitude taken in many schools to the people on whom schools rely to keep them running well! School boards or councils, and the management teams who work with them to make our schools successful, rarely get the attention they deserve when it comes to professional development.

Why educate school board members?

School board members are often volunteers, with limited time and capacity to commit to these roles. Yet on their shoulders lie the burden of ensuring the school succeeds. They are the ones, in most cases who hire (and fire) the principal and oversee the principal’s leadership of the school. They decide the longer-term strategic direction for the school, and ensure the school is financially viable, and sustainable over the longer term. They have to decide on the major risks that schools take on, and how they are managed. Importantly, they also make the call on investing millions of dollars in the right areas for the building and capital requirements of the school.

Yet, often the best we offer them is a brief chat with the chair and principal, a tour of the school and some papers to read before they join the board.

It is true that since we select them for their skills and their commitment to the school’s mission, we should expect that they will bring some of the requisite skills. However, that is also true of our teachers too and we rightly continue to invest in their ongoing development.

Your school’s commitment to investing in the professional development of your board members is critical to the school’s success. Without it, the school and its students can underperform, its resources can decay, and it can even slip into insolvency or bankruptcy, as has happened in some cases around Australia in recent years.

Setting the bar too low?

In one state of Australia, there is a minimum requirement for school board members to commit to four hours of professional development per year! I am not kidding – just four hours.1 Imagine if your child’s teacher was expected to undertake only four hours of professional learning per year? Wouldn’t you be changing schools?

A program of genuine professional development for school board members is essential. Without it, directors may be at greater risk of not meeting their legal obligations. With it, they are armed with the skills and understanding to perform their roles more effectively.

Such a program should be tailored to address the individual needs of the director, and the wider needs of the school. It should, ideally, be driven by an assessment of both the board member’s own skill set and the combined skill requirements of the school board. It may be developed from a well-conducted board performance review, and a review of each board member’s personal contribution.

What is so special about school boards?

There are many good governance training programs available, but very few that are tailored to the needs of schools – their risks and compliance issues, their cultures and missions, and the unique role that the principal plays as both the CEO and the lead educator.

Understanding broader governance skills is important, but understanding how they apply in schools is equally important. A recent school board conflict that was widely covered in the media illustrates my point. The board was filled with outstanding business people and company directors, who poorly misread the school context in which they were operating. The result was an embarrassing back down for the board and severe damage to the school.2

Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) has instituted a professional development program for school board members, that is a great example of what a school board program should contain.

This program is a tailored course, with case studies developed from real school contexts. It is a four-day program, based on a structured and well-respected governance framework,3 and can be completed in individual modules over a year or two. It can even be run in-house, and specific units chosen to address board requirements.

Whoever provides such a program, school board members should be ensuring their professional development is on a par with their responsibilities. School principals, business managers (bursars) and senior management should also be developing an understanding of the roles and obligations of these directors, so they are able to assist and support their governing body.

Good governance is a responsibility of all who have leadership roles in independent schools.

What about public schools and Catholic schools?

Most state and territory governments are instituting processes to devolve some responsibility, including some governance duties, to public school boards and councils. Sadly, inadequate attention is being paid to the skills required of these governing bodies. I fear that the lowest common denominator will be applied, and these board members and principals will be expected to get by with a few hours of basic training. Is that setting them up to fail?

It is to be hoped that common sense will apply, and professional development that is commensurate with the delegated duties will be provided.

In Catholic schools, a similar process of delegation, often called “subsidiarity” in the Catholic sector, is being applied. If this is to be effective and successful, appropriate professional development will be needed for these board members as well.

Strong school governance is a critical factor in the ongoing success of Australia’s excellent schooling system. If we want to be further ahead of our international competitors, we need to ensure that we educate those who take on the demanding tasks of leading our schools.

Full disclosure I am the Honorary Treasurer of Independent Schools Queensland.

1 Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) 2014, Registered and Accredited Individual Non-government Schools (NSW) Manual, BOSTES, Sydney, at section

2 Hamilton, J 2013, Governance for School Boards, McInnes Wilson Lawyers, Brisbane, available, http://www.albacreess.eq.edu.au/IPS/EdQld/Governance-for-school-board-paper.pdf [Accessed 1 July 2015], at pp. 14-21.

3 Kiel, G, Nicholson, G, Tunny, JA & Beck, J 2012, Directors at Work: A Practical Guide for Boards, Thomson Reuters, Sydney.