“Do you all get together and share ideas very often?” the NZSTA (New Zealand School Trustees Association) facilitator asked the assorted group of people from the boards of various local schools, gathered on a chilly Tauranga evening to learn about the board of trustees’ role in student behaviour management.

The shrugs and blank stares that came in response confirmed just how isolated school boards have become.

While leading, teaching and learning are becoming increasingly collaborative, it is clear that school governance has not kept pace.

It’s hardly a surprise. After all, the Boards of Trustees model was set up nearly 30 years ago as part of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms which saw schools flung into competition with each other. From 1989, governance of individual schools transferred to parent-elected representatives on boards of trustees, and boards became responsible for employing staff, managing school property, managing funding and ultimately the education of all students.

And now with the Tomorrow’s Schools model under review, it seems likely that school governance is in for a shake-up once again. Will change bring a more collaborative approach to governance? And what will it look like?

The problem with boards

The major virtue of the board of trustee model is that schools are governed by those who know and care about their community most.

But there are challenges as well. However well-intentioned parent-elected trustees may be, it doesn’t follow they have the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively govern a school.

Researchers have suggested principal appointments, interpretation of student achievement data and strategic planning are all key areas of governance that boards are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with.

Some schools are spoilt for choice with a number of parents with accounting, legal and property backgrounds standing for election. Meanwhile other schools struggle to scrape together enough parents to stand – and balancing skillsets doesn’t come into it, let alone balancing ethnicity and gender.

In Education Review, Stuart Middleton identified several key issues with boards. Top of the list was separating governance and 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.”

Middleton also identified the variable and often somewhat limited pool of experience available for election to positions on the board. He notes that school communities also exhibit a widely variable level of competence to make such selections for their board of trustees.

“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.”

Chair of the Tomorrow’s Schools review, Bali Haque says the feedback the review taskforce has received so far, supports this view.

“Some boards have a lot of capability and some don’t. The national picture is highly variable. Higher decile and larger schools seem happier with the current system than smaller lower decile schools.”

University of Auckland’s Professor Peter O’Connor says this inequity is largely because the competitive approach of Tomorrow’s Schools – in which schools were essentially set up as competing business units – has resulted in a two-tier system, which has seen many schools, particularly those in lower socioeconomic areas, left to struggle.

“So schools that were doing really well, continue to do well under this structure, but for schools that were under the hammer 20 to 30 years ago – this structure has done nothing to help them.

“Loading financial responsibilities and all those other kinds of obligations onto individual boards has caused real problems in low socioeconomic areas,” says O’Connor.

O’Connor says part of the problem is boards work largely in isolation.

“You’re shafted with all these responsibilities and obligations and you’re then just left. And some of the kinds of decisions that you’re making and working in the isolation of an individual school doing that is really tricky.”

Collaboration not competition

O’Connor believes the political philosophy that underpins the board of trustees model has moved on.

“We do better as a society when we collaborate than when we compete. That’s very counter to the way we thought in the ‘80s – I think we’ve worked out that we got that wrong, especially in education.

“Shifting from a competitive schools model to a collaborative schools model has always got to be better.”

Bali Haque says this echoes what the review taskforce is hearing from stakeholders as they’ve travelled the country.

“We’ve had feedback about how well some boards are working, and also about some that aren’t. Some communities of learning are working really well and others are finding it more challenging. The message that is coming through really strongly though is the need for less competition between schools, and more collaboration,” says Haque.

“How we recommend putting that into action via a governance model is yet to be determined. We are thinking about it a lot!”

Shared governance back on the table

One option that has been suggested is shared governance, in which boards work together across schools.

However Haque notes that shared governance models can already be established under the current rules, but there are currently very few takers. Indeed it’s not a new notion. Prior to Tomorrow’s Schools, boards of governors could govern across groups of secondary schools, like grammar schools, for example.

Certainly Tomorrow’s Schools never intended boards to be as isolated as they have become.

The initial reforms proposed education service centres to provide local support for boards, community education forums that would give communities wider than the single cell of the school a voice, and a parent advocacy council where parents could raise issues and seek solutions.

However, these initiatives had only limited success due to a lack of necessary resourcing and support needed to see them flourish. The Parent Advocacy Council, for example, had come and gone by 1991. And thus, the exposed system of devolved school governance was thrown into the environment of competition between schools.

Around 1998-99, as part of a review of education regulations, the Government looked at the Board of Trustees model with fresh eyes. The subsequent consultation document suggested that schools could cluster together to reduce board and principal workloads, and to address the issue of inequities in the capability of individual boards.

However, neither trustees nor principals have shown much interest in a cluster model, according to NZCER’s Dr Cathy Wylie in her 2007 research.

“There has never been strong interest in this, and although schools do have more experience now of working within clusters, these are usually for the purposes of gaining resources or professional development for each school to use individually, not for the purpose of making collective decisions,” states Wylie.

“Individual school buy-in to some clusters that have been formed to tackle local issues, and competition between schools, continue to be challenges for those seeing value in schools working together.”

What can we learn from the UK?

Professor Toby Greany from University College of London, who recently spoke at the Education Leaders Forum in Rotorua, is well placed to comment on governance partnerships between schools.

Since 2010, and increasingly now, many UK schools are moving into multi-academy trusts which are governed by one set of governors. These trusts can include between 2 and 70 schools and they can be local or national.

Greany and his colleagues recently published a piece of research over four years that looked at the effectiveness of these trusts.

“We argue it is very problematic this idea that you just get schools together and they work, because of the hierarchical and market pressures at play. Schools don’t necessarily have the capacity and the expertise to do this effectively.”

He cites a number of issues with the trusts that have surfaced including transparency of decision making, corruption and misuse of funds.

“The problem with shared governance is that everyone brings their school’s differing ideas of governance and leadership to the table. While in theory we’re coming together as equals, in practice we’re not – due to local status hierarchies. Take exclusion for example – leaders and governors at one school might take quite a different approach to behaviour than other schools.

But when shared governance works, it’s powerful, says Greany.

“What we’re finding is the schools that are providing the support get better faster because they’re learning so much, because they’re having to apply those skills in context.”

Greany says the research gives some indication of what factors make an effective network. He’s also completed 31 case studies of multi-academy trusts and teaching school alliances and is writing a good practice guide off the back of these.

“Things like, getting around the table, being honest about the negative pressures in the system which can make partnership difficult, the values they want to then subscribe to in terms of working collaboratively together,” says Greany.

“I think there are big implications for policy about how you try and minimise the impacts of market pressures whilst trying to secure equity in that.

“So it’s about admissions, school enrolment, those kind of issues that are really important aspects of this. How does funding work in order to incentivise taking on disadvantaged children? How do you manage things like exclusions and so on and so forth?

“How do you get school improvement fundamentals right? How do you know how schools are doing? How do you make sure you’ve got the right capacity and the right way to support, challenge and so forth? There’s also some stuff about how do you build the wider culture and get the values right so that it comes together,” says Greany.

“All of those are part of this whole picture of, how do you get the governance right?”

Communities of Learning

Back in New Zealand, Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako arguably offer the best vehicle to explore shared governance models.

While establishing CoL has had its challenges, it is hard to find a more enthusiastic group of educators than those involved with a successful CoL. Some CoL are really starting to find their feet, tweaking their goals, tailoring their professional development and starting to see real collaboration between the schools, and improved outcomes for their learners.

But boards of trustees have been somewhat left behind on the journey. A school’s involvement with its CoL might get a cursory mention in the Principal’s report at a board meeting, but there is little to encourage boards to “seek opportunities to collaborate and share good practice across the community” as NZSTA recommends.

The difficulty comes from pushing away from the mindset of looking after your own school, to looking out for all the learners in your community. The sense of competition between schools has also become engrained in many parents, as they have played the zoning game, pored over decile ratings and made choices about where to send their children.

It goes against the grain to share and this isn’t helped by the fact that individual boards are still the accountable entity for their school’s performance, regardless of whether their school is a member of a CoL or not.

NZSTA’s Lorraine Kerr and Mary Hall address this issue in their discussion paper for the Tomorrow’s Schools Review.

“…although school boards are held completely accountable for everything that happens in a school when blame is to be allocated, they have been almost completely excluded from strategic discussions about whether or not their school’s vision and mission, or their students’ best interests over the long term, will be promoted by joining a community of learning.”

They make the point that boards are now required to “kowtow to the decisions” of ‘stewardship groups’ which the Ministry has established at management level to govern the CoL, despite having no legal accountability or authority.

University of Auckland’s Professor Peter O’Connor believes CoL lend themselves to exploring shared governance.

“It would work in those areas where it is difficult to attract onto individual boards the kind of expertise that’s needed,” he says.

O’Connor says it is apparent schools are hungry for more collaboration and less competition.

“I think CoLs have been embraced by many parts of the country because it cuts against that whole kind of individual school model – and that collaboration and cooperation across the sector is really vital and important.”

He gives the example of a CoL he’s recently been working with in Auckland.

“Seven or eight principals are sitting around the table working on a range of issues and it makes an enormous amount of sense. If they were able to share governance expertise as well it would be really useful and sensible.”

“The next logical step is to build a governance structure around that to support the way in which they’re operating.”

Is change coming and what will it look like?

It seems likely that the Tomorrow’s Schools Review will see changes to the way schools are governed.

Bali Haque suggests that changes could extend beyond governance to what parental input into schools looks like.

“The question is whether we are asking too much of parents elected to boards who are essentially volunteering their time, and who often come to a board without a lot of experience in governing a school,” says Haque.

“Parental input into schools is important and we’ve been hearing that pretty consistently all around the country. Parental input however is not the same as governance.

“I guess a better question would be how do parents want to be involved in their school community, and that’s something we’re talking to parents and trustees about.”

O’Connor certainly thinks the Tomorrow’s Schools Review will see big changes.

“I have a feeling the recommendations will be quite radical. And they need to be. It’s a system that’s not working. It’s as simple as that really.”

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