The election of over 12,000 people to school boards of trustees – a massive piece of democratic organisation – has now been completed and 2400 school principals around the country are facing their new boards and wondering how it is going to go over the next three years.
The role of school boards has considerably changed over the last 26 years since our community based self-managing school system was implemented. Boards have moved away from an administrative role where they were concerned with financial and property management along with detailed policies around day to day processes. Today they have a very much hands-off governance oversight.
Boards now are more akin to what might be found in a corporate boardroom where they are focussed on setting goals and objectives and where they are looking for the management to deliver and to report on progress and compliance.
Some find this somewhat different to what they expected. They thought that by joining the board they would be influencing what went on in the school on a day to day basis. This however, is soon explained to them as the role of the principal. Section 76 (2c) of the Education Act is fairly explicit that the principal has “complete discretion to manage as the principal thinks fit the school’s day-to-day administration”.
The board on the other hand (section 75) “must perform its functions and exercise its powers in such a way as to ensure that every student at the school is able to attain his or her highest possible standard in educational achievement”. In section 75(2) however the board also has “complete discretion to control the management of the school as it thinks fit”.
The dichotomy for boards is the difference between the principal’s role of “complete discretion to manage” and the board’s “complete discretion to control”. How does this work?
The answer lies perhaps in a comparison between the helicopter view of the morning rush hour and the traffic officer’s view directing traffic. The board is looking at the how the world of education is working at a global level and setting out a Masterplan for where they want to go, setting attainment standards for outcomes for the students. The principal and their leadership team is working out the logistics on a day-to-day basis of how they are going to get there.
The way in which this works for the board is through the school’s Charter – which includes an annual plan and targets that are set by the principal and approved by the board. The board’s Charter sets overall goals, predominantly around student achievement, and uses the principal’s regular board reporting and performance agreement to monitor progress, refining as required as they go along.
All the new people joining school boards of trustees this year need to understand this as their first priority. A starting point is to ensure that all trustees (including the retreaded ones form the last board) attend professional development training. NZ School Trustees Association is currently offering a series of workshops on Governance Essentials and this is an excellent way to start the journey.