school boards

It’s not just the three R’s anymore: maximising the value of school boards

As the academic year approaches the end, and teachers begin to assess students and write up
report cards, it’s timely for school boards to also consider their performance and position.

While the act of going to school has barely changed from the industrial age, the issues facing schools and those tasked with managing them has shifted significantly.

School boards now face a more complex environment which calls for skilled and informed directors to rigorously monitor a range of issues and responsibilities, many of which directors may not have previously had experience with.

The increasing challenges facing schools cross over a broad range of areas, including digital disruption, doing more with less, reputational risk, and navigating a risk-adverse regulatory environment.

How schools deal with these challenges will contribute directly to the school’s success, or otherwise, and school boards now need to play a far more strategic leadership role than they perhaps have traditionally done.

As such, school boards need directors with an increasing level of expertise and broader contextual understanding in order to fulfill compliance and performance responsibilities.

Considering school boards have traditionally been seen as ‘volunteer’ positions filled by well-meaning parents as a way of contributing to the school community, reviewing a school board’s position and performance should be a high priority for those boards.

Indeed, the case law tells us school board directors should not regard themselves as ‘volunteers’ if they are not remunerated, but rather as ‘unpaid directors’ and approach their role accordingly.

A failure to do so may not only impede the performance of the school but can also, through ineffective decision-making, leave the unpaid director legally liable for the school’s failings.

Where school boards can add the most value

School boards now need to play a more strategic leadership role rather than simply acting as a support structure for the principal.

Given the mounting complexities, risks and pressures, a board that can offer a pool of knowledge, wisdom and sound advice to the school executive body is not only valuable but necessary.

School executive teams are for the most part educators, yet the breadth of responsibilities they need to discharge daily far exceeds the application of the curriculum.

Board directors can consider their ability to monitor and question the assessment of risks including financial, reputational, social, health and safety, and of course, legal, as well as offer strategic input to help their school fulfill its mission and maintain its values while simultaneously innovating for the future.

Most specifically, school boards need to be across:

1. Compliance

Increased legal responsibilities and expectations of accountability following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse means directors need to not only be aware of their individual legal responsibilities as well as the school’s but also be questioning and challenging how the school is responding to them.

2. Stakeholder expectations and engagement

The days of schools needing perhaps only a weekly newsletter as their key stakeholder engagement strategy are long gone. Now, parent bodies, shareholder organisations, government departments and local communities all have growing expectations of schools, particularly independent schools with multi million-dollar budgets, and demand transparency.

3. Innovation and agility

Whilst academic performance remains a key outcome, it’s no longer the only measure of performance that counts. Performance expectations extend to emotional stability and growth, and future-ready resilience. Yet schools and the education system are typically slow to innovate, often hamstrung by tradition or bureaucratic boundaries, so school boards can seek to monitor the school’s agility in this area.

4. Digital technologies usage and privacy

As educators turn increasingly to the use of digital technologies in classrooms, a raft of risks in terms of digital footprints, health and well being consequences and safeguarding privacy are simultaneously rising.

5. Reputation & reputational risk

Social media and vocal and active parent and student bodies increases the need for communication strategies, and has heralded an era of greater transparency and accountability, both of which may be new for some school communities. Whilst reputation is built across many elements of a school’s performance and values, it’s also highly susceptible to damage from online commentary, as we’ve seen in the media in recent times.

6. Social responsibility

For independent schools, government funding as an issue is likely to receive further scrutiny and criticism. While not new, there will likely be further pressure on the issue that schools will need to be ready to meet.

How school boards can adjust and improve

To shift and navigate through these challenges school board directors will need to be willing to identify and overturn assumptions and biases that can hamper effective decision-making.

Every individual has assumptions and biases – these are collected over time through life experience – and for a school board, they can be heavily entrenched in school traditions and loyalties.

Boards as groups, particularly those where there is long tenure or where they are drawn from the same talent pool as is often the case with school boards, are at risk of group think and a collegial environment that blinkers directors.

It’s imperative a school board embraces diversity of thinking, which may mean a review of the board composition to ensure a diverse range of experience, styles, vocational backgrounds, age, gender and cultural backgrounds.

In addition to considering diversity, school boards should also consider renewal for refreshment of ideas and alignment with strategic priorities.

With so many complex challenges on the horizon, school board directors would be well-placed to consider what they can do to position themselves to best meet them.

This could include:

  • Training: review your responsibilities and undertake professional instruction so you can be confident you are meeting your legal requirements.
  • Workshops: risk identification and strategy workshops either as a board or with the school management team, to ensure alignment with core values and mission; improve communication; and to identify areas for improvement or attention.
  • Skills matrix: seek professional advice in regards to your board’s diversity of skills and identify any shortcomings that could be addressed.


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