School Boards: Accountability, Governance and the School Community

22 March 2018

One of the most problematic areas for school boards is drawing an appropriate boundary between the governance and strategic activities of the board and the management and administration activities of the school executive staff including the principal. Legally, the registration requirements in most states and territories require such a line to be clearly drawn. For example, in Tasmania Standard One requires that the governing body of a non-government school "must be able to demonstrate that there is a clear separation between the day-to-day management of the school by the principal and the overall governance of the school by the governing body.'' And in Western Australia, section 160 of the School Education Act (1990) requires that the governing body of a school has ownership, management and control of a school but the principal is responsible for the ''day-to-day management''. Evidence of such a separation is normally found in the form of a governing body/board constitution and related governance documents.

While all schools would comply with their legal requirements around the different roles of the school board and the principal, it is interesting to look at cases reported in the media where this relationship has been scrutinised. In many cases, attention is focused on the school's governance structure and entities and whether or not their actions align with the interests of their key stakeholders, being the school community.

Reputation Management, Stakeholder Engagement and Board Accountability: Some Current Examples

2012 - a prominent Melbourne non-government school principal was fired after the school board discovered she had been overpaid for over 15 years, when an external auditor raised the financial discrepancies with the board. Legal action resulted with outrage from the school community.

There have been other examples since then.

What examples have in common is management of the relationship between the executive and the board, the board's accountability to other stakeholders in the school community like parents and students, and the management of the reputation of the school.

Management vs Governance: Drawing the Appropriate Line

It is the role of the school board to provide strategic guidance for the school and to effectively oversee and review the school’s management. It is often said that the board’s most important task is the selection of the principal. The principal is the public face of the school and is crucial in setting the tone, standards and personality of the school. The trusting relationship between the principal and the board is pivotal to the success of the school, and essential in enabling a school board to maintain their distance from what would otherwise be operational decisions.

It is an essential aspect of good governance that clear boundaries exist between the overall governance of the school, which is the responsibility of the board, and the day-to-day management of the school, which is the responsibility of the principal and the executive. But most board charters are silent on where, or how, the appropriate lines are drawn.

The best way to manage the relationship between the executive and the board is to have clear policies and associated processes. Without a clearly articulated policy that sets out the responsibilities of board and executive staff, board members may ‘cross the line’ at will and are seemingly free to do so.

If the board is governing effectively, then a substantial portion of their time should be spent on strategic issues such as developing, reviewing, communicating and monitoring the implementation of strategic goals and strategic and enterprise level risks including:

  • monitoring the performance of the principal and the board
  • having a strategic plan and monitoring the implementation of the plan
  • understanding disruptive technologies to educational service delivery and being aware of the latest educational research to leverage the opportunities they present, and
  • monitoring and articulating the school culture and ethos and religious identity of the school.

The last strategic risk above means engagement with key stakeholders is crucial to articulation of the identity of the school and hopefully, reducing the incidents which will impact negatively on the school's reputation in the future.

Governance and Accountability: Does a Board Really have to Respond to Key Stakeholders?

Under the Australian Education Act 2013 (Cth) and associated regulatory frameworks, schools are required to meet a range of commitments relating to educational accountability, including financial accountability and any other conditions that are required, in order to receive funding under the Act.

However, most non-government schools are also acutely aware that they survive only with continued stakeholder support. They need to be highly accountable, responsible to their local communities, meet public standards of educational and financial accountability, and comply with the legislative, regulatory and mandatory reporting requirements that apply to all schools.

Non-government schools are also more consumer oriented than ever with private funding contributions through the payment of fees increasing the school’s accountability to parents and providing a performance-related incentive for school boards. The reality for non-government school boards is that they need to remain competitive to survive, consistently meeting high parental expectations for the development of students both academically and socially, as well as balancing their legal obligations as a board director with always acting in the best interests of the school. The freedom of students and their families to exercise choice in schooling is one of the most demanding forms of accountability for non-government schools, and is also impacted the most when the reputation of the school suffers through any adverse media coverage.

Reputation Management: An Essential Part of Risk

As mentioned in our previous article, the highest priority of school boards is managing the school’s reputation, with a good reputation attracting the best teachers, students and community support and also bringing in steady donations.

However, reputations are fragile and it bears repeating the often acknowledged understanding that a reputation can ‘take years to build, but be lost in a day’. Any incident involving a breach of trust between the school board, principal or school community can attract immediate media and public attention, bringing unwanted scrutiny to the governance of the school, meaning reputation management should be a core component of any school's enterprise risk strategy.

What can School Boards do now?

Non-government schools have an essential mix of autonomy and accountability to the school community and an effective school board, with the best interests of the school as their core value, is a vital part of this. School boards should have clear policy and process delineations between strategic and day-to-day management objectives, with accountability to their key stakeholders, including parents and students of the school community, a core part of their governance obligations.

Lauren Osbich

Lauren is a Content Development and Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over ten years of experience in legal research and legal publishing, working nationally across Australia. She studied at Macquarie University completing a Bachelor of Laws with an Honours in English, followed by being admitted as a solicitor of the NSW Supreme Court. Lauren is also passionate about giving back to the community through the not for profit sector as well as donating time to mentor and coach young lawyers in their professional development and finding time to also be a member of a not for profit Board.