Is the board of trustees model working?August 2013
DR STUART MIDDLETON questions the effectiveness of New Zealand’s current system of school governance.
The recent events within Cricket New Zealand suggest that some organisations don’t even need an opposition to be beaten – they are able to defeat themselves without any assistance. What amazes me is that once again a staggering failure of governance is allowed to pass. Victims are strewn all over the place, reputational damage affects individuals and the organisation, and yet the board sails on, unaccountable and unscathed. Well played, chaps, and good use of spin!
Governance of sport is consistently of a low standard. Take your pick: swimming, Otago rugby, rugby league, netball franchises, cycling, and athletics are just a selection of sports governance bodies that over recent years have managed to exhibit what is simply a failure to grasp that governance has characteristics that make it different from management.
In the finance sector, a benevolent silence is the only commentary possible – governance failure where it has occurred has been worse than simple incompetence. One wonders whether some of the issues in the rebuild of Christchurch and the responses to the quakes have been issues of governance rather than any operational ineptitude. So education should not single itself out just because governance in education also seems to provide a challenge.
It has been estimated that at any one time there are about 15 per cent of the 2557 boards of trustees in New Zealand that have issues of board performance. This means that about 385 schools have issues (you might well ask whether this is actually very good; 2172 school boards do not have issues!). But given the view that governance generally is weak in New Zealand and the sheer size of the enterprise that is New Zealand school governance – 2557 schools requiring 12,785 parent representatives that contribute the range of skill-sets required to make up an effective board – it is no surprise that there will be issues, and in some cases, failures.
It is my experience as an observer of many schools that there are four key issues in the quality of school governance in New Zealand. First, there is actually knowing the difference between the duties of governance and the elements of management. Where school boards run into trouble is that having been elected, they want to start micro-managing the school, they want to run the school. Their expertise to do this is based on a nostalgic recollection of their own schooling (both good and bad memories are powerful influences), their quite proper concern for their children, and often, a desire to prove that “their school” is better than the neighbouring schools.
Inevitably this results in tensions between the principal and the board, which is a recurring issue in school governance. This sometimes spills over into rather unpleasant public spats.
Secondly, communities have a variable and often somewhat limited pool of experience available for election to positions on the board – and that election is really a selection made by the community, which in itself will exhibit a widely variable level of competence to make such selections. This is democracy in action at the smallest level. It is all pretty hit and miss – not unlike our cricket team.
Thirdly, putting a board together is a complex issue that goes well beyond the election of the bowling club committee at its AGM. The issues faced by business boards in selecting new members are to balance experience of potential candidates, matching required skill-sets to the needs of a business in a particular period of time. They can’t just go for glamour appointments as some have found out. Nor can they hand the matter over to people who do not know the business. Then there is that matter of gender balance. One wonders about the basis on which parents in voting for board members make their selection.
Finally, a significant issue in the provision of governance for schools in New Zealand is the disparate level of skills that communities in their isolated ways can bring to the task. Is a community in a leafy rich suburb able to provide the balance of backgrounds that will ensure that the business of schooling will prepare youngsters for living in a diverse and different world? Can the community of a low decile school provide the range of skills needed to ensure that the provision of quality education and the levels of achievement for which they have responsibility are adequate? Low decile schools have complexities that middle and high decile schools do not have, and yet it is these very same school communities that have to provide a board that is, until it gets into trouble, largely left to do its best. When that best is not good enough, the state intervenes.
The various levels of intervention – requested by the boards themselves in about half the cases – can result in the board being replaced by a commissioner, and this happens, I believe, in about 30 per cent of the interventions.
The boards of trustees were never intended to be as isolated as they have become. Tomorrow’s Schools (which was the policy statement following the Picot Report on the administration of education) also proposed the existence of education service centres that would be a relatively local mechanism to create support for boards of trustees, community education forums that would give communities wider than the single cell of the school a voice, and finally, a parent advocacy council where parents could raise issues and seek solutions. None of that happened and the greatly exposed system of devolved school governance was thrown into the feral environment of competition between schools. There had to be winners and losers in that scenario.
Perhaps it is time to review the whole board of trustees set-up. With the notion of clusters and new ways of working making its appearance in the Christchurch re-organisation, the way might be clear for such a review. The report Shaping Education: Directions for Education Renewal in Greater Christchurch (MOE / TEC / NZ Government 2012) has in it some exciting ideas for new ways of working – sharing resources, working to different times, new structures, mixing age groups, collaboration, schools operating across different sites, shared facilities, new facilities, and so on. The ideas are flowing down there. One comment in talking about new structures talks of combining a “… junior high school/senior high school focus, academic, and trades specialisation all under one governing body…”
It’s tough in Christchurch at the moment but they will be creating a great legacy for New Zealand if they get the ball rolling on genuine structural reform of education. None of those reforms is more urgent than looking at more effective governance of schools.
It is the role of boards generally to increase the value of the company for the shareholders. Therefore, it is the role of the board of trustees of a school to increase the value in terms of the educational outcomes to the government. How refreshing it is to see that finally the boards of trustees are to be held accountable for the educational achievement of the school. The Education Amendment Bill recently passed by the House is greatly to be supported in this regard. After more than 20 years, school boards are about to get on to the real work.
Dr Stuart Middleton of Manukau Institute of Technology has wide experience as chair of several council controlled organisations, including the Community Education Trust Auckland (COMET) and Manukau Leisure Services Ltd, as well as membership of a range of charitable not-for-profit trusts.