Talk-ED: A fish rots from the head: The importance of good 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 staggers 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!

On the other hand, governance of sport is consistently of a low standard. Take your pick, swimming, Otago rugby, rugby league are just a selection of sports governance which in recent times have managed to exhibit a wide range of issues at a governance level.

Over in the finance sector, failure of governance is rife.

Some of the issues in Christchurch and the responses to the quakes have been issues of governance rather than any operational ineptitude.

And in the education sector, governance continues to provide a challenge. A report[1] estimated that at any one time there were about 15% of the 2,557 Boards of Trustees in New Zealand that had issues of Board performance. This means that about 385 schools have issues. (You might well ask whether this is a surprise in a country where governance generally is weak – how can the nation’s schools be expected to find nearly 13,000 parents who have the skills and qualities of a Board Member.)

It is my experience as an observer of many schools that the key issue is actually knowing the difference between the duties of governance and the elements of management. Where Boards run into trouble is where they want to start running the school. That is why a recurring issue in school governance is the relationship between the Principal and the Board. These sometimes spill over into rather unpleasant public spats. And communities have a varied pool of experience available for selection to these positions – a selection that is made by the community which also will exhibit a widely variable level of competence to make such selections. It is all pretty hit and miss – not unlike our cricket team.

One of the great issues of school governance, in my view is that low-decile schools in which the issues are complex and not as straightforward as they are in middle and high decile schools 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, the report tells us, in about 30% 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 which  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, school 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. And none of those reforms is more urgent than looking at the 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 currently before 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. Now, that will add value!

 

 


[1] Wylie, Cathy (2007) School governance in New Zealand – how is it working? New Zealand Council for Educational Research Te Rünanga o Aotearoa mö te Rangahau i te Mätauranga, Wellington

 

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