3. Applying Principles of Good Governance to Schools

Principles of corporate governance must be considered and applied in light of the complex school environment.

Complex Environment

Unlike traditional companies, a school operates on a not-for-profit basis; its stakeholders have long term personal and emotional investments, relationships and friendships; participation in the School may cover many generations of family members; members of the Board participate on a voluntary basis; the School is engaged in the education, development and welfare of children; and teachers are expected to be dedicated and provide a contribution well beyond the normal teaching day.

Schools rely on family philanthropy, legacies and benefactors. It is not a simple matter for disaffected stakeholders to change allegiances. It is not a simple matter for disaffected stakeholders to change allegiances. Changing schools can be a traumatic and expensive exercise.

It is pivotal to good governance that the Board recognises and manages the School’s main stakeholder groups. The management of stakeholders requires skill and tact and relationships must be delicately balanced at all times.

The main stakeholder groups are depicted in the following diagram:

Diagram of stakeholder groups

Commercial Directors

The members of a school Board have a wide range of interests, specialities, skills and backgrounds. They are not required to have experience in the corporate Boardroom or be financially or commercially focussed. They may be educators, religious nominees or representatives of parent or affiliate groups.

In contrast to many commercial Boards, the goals of the School extend beyond financial performance. Some experienced company directors have difficulty in adjusting to the non-commercial environment of a school Board. The company director must understand that the School Board is a different environment.

Parents

It is often the case that parents of current students sit on the School Board.  This brings both benefits and difficulties.

Parent Board Members are alive to the issues of the day and can provide important feedback to the Board. They are keen to ensure that the school meets the current and future needs of the students.

By the same token, parent Board Members are usually more accessible to stakeholders than non-parent Board Members and consequently may be subjected to greater pressure or scrutiny. It can be the case that parent Board Members are sought out by parents focussed on securing the best outcome for particular child or their particular issue rather than looking at the interests of the school as a whole.  Parent Board Members often become targets for those with complaints, grievances or causes. This is a common issue for School Boards and requires clear guidelines to assist Board Members on how to deal with such situations.

There is no universal model of good governance for schools. Rather a good governance structure requires a review of the particular school’s unique context and culture.  A governance structure will only be effective if it acknowledges the environment and particular context within which the school operates.

Relevant factors for consideration include:

  • the school’s core values, history and culture
  • the objectives and strategic direction of the school
  • individual personalities
  • interests of key stakeholders:
    • current students and parents
    • former students and parents
    • prospective students and parents
    • affiliates (e.g. religious association)
    • government funders
    • benefactors
    • staff
    • local community
    • other relevant groups.
  • the size of the school
  • availability of suitable Board members and other resources.

In addition, a school’s governance framework must be reviewed and adopted to reflect changing environmental factors.  The framework that constitutes good corporate governance for a school will evolve in light of the changing circumstances of the school and must constantly be tailored to suit those particular circumstances.

Questions and Answers

‘I am new to my School Board.  How do I respond to those parents who insist on coming up to me wanting me to take on their particular concerns?’

It is not uncommon for interested parties, such as parents of current students, to try to lobby Board members. Parents have a strong investment in their children’s education and therefore it is understandable that they may wish to express their concerns or try to advance their interests with someone who they would perceive to be in a position of some authority. These parents may require a degree of tact and understanding.

The school should ensure that a proper forum exists whereby parents and other stakeholders can express their views or concerns without fear of retribution. It is important to ensure that the views of all stakeholders are considered, not just those who are more vocal or pushy.

If you are the recipient of pressure from parents, be sure to politely inform them that a proper method is in place for them to express their views.  Provide reassurance that any opinions or complaints received in the appropriate manner will be dealt with in the appropriate manner.

The best response is to suggest that the parent put their concerns in writing and address them either to the Principal, if the issue involves the operations of the school, or to the Chair, if the matter involves the Principal or a governance issue.

Try to explain that your role as Board Member is separate to your role as a parent. All Board Members have an ongoing obligation to act in the best interests of the School. Although you have been appointed to the Board by a specific interest group, your role on the Board requires you to act strictly in the best interests of the School as a whole, and not for the benefit of the particular interest group. You are prohibited from acting as the mouthpiece of the other parents, and you are not permitted to report back to them on the deliberations or decisions of the Board unless expressly authorised by the Board.

This should encourage stakeholders to follow proper procedures to register concerns.