What is meant by governance and why is it important? This paper highlights the important role of school councils together with the specific practices which contribute to the effective operation of councils. The information sources include the good practices of school councils, research findings, Departmental advice to school councils, and Victorian public sector governance guidelines.
In understanding the important role of school councils and boards, decades of research and practice in schools make it clear that:
The research suggests that, if these partnerships are to become a key source of improvement in student achievement, they need to be much stronger. The basis for building stronger partnerships is the work, over time, of an effective school council. It is the focus of shared and strategic decision-making for the whole school community. But good governance represents an ideal which is not easy to achieve. As well, because sustained resources and support for school governance have not always been a high priority, few education systems come close to this standard.
Discussions involving many principals and school council members thus reached general agreement that in order to drive improvement, key indicators of good governance in schools were needed - which could be used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of current practice. Ten indicators - which also correspond to our ten practical tips for improving governance - are discussed in what follows.
The Australian National Audit Office defines governance as:
"… the set of responsibilities and practices, policies and procedures, exercised by an agency’s executive, to provide strategic direction, ensure objectives are achieved, manage risks and use resources responsibly and with accountability".
Governance pivots on, but also includes more than the work of, formal governing bodies such as boards or councils. It also encompasses other groups as well as the strength of the partnerships within an organisation, between stakeholders and across its various parts that make up its system of governance.
In the case of a school, besides a school council or board, these groups include the leadership team, staff committees, parent group and student representative council together with the ways that these groups interact with each other and with all stakeholders. This gets to the heart of 'good governance'. A good governing body is based on strong partnerships and broad, grass-roots participation in its own internal work as an effective board and supports the development throughout an organisation of:
Why is governance important?
The right mix of accountability and conformance and leadership and performance is central to a school's success. Indeed, the development of great governance, as the basis of strong school-family-community partnerships that are broader than but also include the work of teachers, is likely to emerge as the single most important factor in enabling significant improvements in learning outcomes and life opportunities for all students. For a school council's work, over time, to have a major impact on partnerships and student engagement and achievement, two critical aspects will need to continue to evolve:
Making time for great governance
Great governance is obviously a demanding and time-consuming endeavour. Time that some may feel they do not have to give, especially in the absence of adequate resources and support. However, many people may make the time to contribute to the work of a school council and its sub-committees if they:
Greater awareness of specific great governance practices, as developed by many school councils and boards, can promote this commitment. It can also assist a school council, which may have become bogged down in bureaucracy, trivia, micro-management, rubber stamping or petty politics, to move forward. One way to address some of these issues that school councils can face is to organise every second meeting (of the at least eight that must occur annually) as a more policy-focused forum. This suggestion will be further discussed below.
The common interest is composed of interests widely shared by members of a community. It would benefit the community as a whole and be supported by most community members, if they can find it. ... The continuing task of governance - in any community that respects equal rights for all - is finding common ground on policies that advance the common interest. Ronald D. Brunner
Good school governance involves two closely related challenges:
The best councils translate the common interest into truly shared goals to improve the educational experiences and learning outcomes for all. This is achieved by recognising that:
As the practice and understanding of good governance evolves, as diverse views are really valued and as a council strives to build unity in the midst of this diversity, the risk of factionalism, a net cost to the school community as a whole, is reduced.
The role of leadership in facilitating good governance
The principal helps to ensure that the council is focused on its core strategic business and is developing as a real team by:
Likewise, the school council president does this by:
A school's core business - exploring key questions
School council members may discuss: 'How do we add real value, over time, to policies and plans to improve learning outcomes?' During a two-year period, some councils hold a forum in which teachers, parents and students, and other community members, collaboratively explore key questions such as:
As a framework for exploring these kinds of questions to do with a school's core business, school councils, leadership teams, staff committees, parent groups and student representative councils can make use of the Great Schools Checklist on this website.
The role, objectives, functions and powers of the school council should be clearly understood by all council members. A council’s objectives are to:
In relation to enhancing the educational opportunities of students, for example, school councils put aside time to 'drill down' into this objective - to agree as to what it means and how their planning, policy and partnership work may best enhance students' learning. School councils also ensure that their functions and powers are thought through carefully and are the basis of their practice. Among a school council’s functions are:
A school council's powers include:
Discussion of school council objectives, functions and powers ensures that all council members are 'reading from the same page'. For example, school council members discuss what does it really mean to establish the broad direction and vision of the school and how a vision really connects with practice on a day-to-day basis.
The Department's publication for school councils, Making the Partnership Work, explains that:
A school council should look up at what is possible to achieve over time in the community, not down into daily operations.
If worked on properly, a school's strategic planning can:
A school's strategic plan is the basis for teachers, parents and students and community groups working together - a point around which a whole school community can focus and unite. The school's leadership structure may then be aligned with the goals in the school's strategic plan, so that it reflects the priorities of the plan. Some schools seek to do this by organising high-level teams (involving teachers, parents and students) around the goals.
A school council works to consult with the school's community. One way that schools do this is to have a clear time line for developing the plan publicised at the beginning of the year to ensure that council and community members as well as sub-committees have an opportunity to provide serious input. This can culminate in a clear, coherent plan for the future that includes shared school-family-community goals. Some schools publicly display their shared vision and goals in understandable, explicit terms to their communities in a variety of ways (e.g., on their websites and posters on classroom walls).
School council members should seek to focus their time and energy on being strategic and managing the policy development process. A policy is a dynamic answer to a significant problem or issue under consideration by the school. It draws together school community members so that there is a shared understanding and a framework for future action.
Decisions about policies occur after a broadly-based evaluation has taken place, and research has thrown up the creative options available, as well as the pros and cons of each, for consideration. Once a policy is determined, it should be followed by planning for, and careful monitoring of, its implementation. Good policies developed in this way can be seen to drive a plan for implementation. Policies let everyone know what the whole school community approach is, and what the expectations will be in relation to certain matters. They ensure that there is coordination across all decisions and consistency in how the school operates.
A small number of strategic and specific policies that actually affect school practice is preferred to a large number of policies, some of which may be largely irrelevant or of little use. This approach is based on the notion of strategic gain, i.e., ‘Given our limited resources, what can we do that will help the school to move furthest in the agreed direction?’
A school council may schedule reviews of all the policies for which it is responsible on a regular basis. Parents and students should be informed of the policies to be reviewed each year, the process to be undertaken, how parents and students can be involved, and how they will be notified about any agreed changes at the end of the review process. This does not rule out the possibility that other unplanned reviews may be necessary if changes occur to the internal or external environment of the school, but such extra demands should be kept to a minimum. The Department has a useful framework for developing policies.
A school council ensures that:
The financial plan (budget) ensures that the school's resources (people, programs, services and equipment) support the educational goals and priorities. It shows how the school will make the most efficient and effective use of these resources to produce the results aimed for in the strategic plan.
Good financial practice focuses on achieving a close alignment of the budget with the school’s strategic plan and its major goals around improving student outcomes. The Department also has a very useful internal financial control checklist which school councils can use to make sure that they do not expose themselves to financial risk. A school's treasurer and finance committee should be familiar with this checklist.
School accountability and reporting are both horizontal and vertical: directed outwards to parents and the local community as well as upwards through a department of education. There should be a balance between horizontal and vertical accountability. To be the basis for in-depth discussion by the school council and the school community and to drive future improvement, an annual report needs to be objective - both celebratory about achievements, and critical of issues not yet resolved.
It should be data-rich, providing information, statistics and explanations of the school’s position in comparison with its previous position, and with that of like schools. It is then a basis for in-depth discussion within a school council. If a report is simply signed-off with minimal discussion, it is a missed opportunity for carefully reflecting on what has been achieved and should be celebrated, what has not worked and what may need to be questioned and rethought.
A council’s effectiveness depends to a large extent on how it develops and utilises the capabilities of its members. A good council will have a mix of people who possess, and who are provided with sustained support and professional learning to further develop, the following capabilities:
There is no reason to expect that all school council members will inherently possess all of the capabilities or value all of them. Thus, induction and training become all the more important, highlighting the need for adequate resources and support being available for the induction and ongoing professional learning of council members.
School councils emphasise the importance of having a longer-term perspective on the personal capabilities that need to be developed and supported to ensure that a council preserves its capacity for good governance and does not lose its corporate memory.
Councils use succession planning as a process for reflecting on their future needs, taking into account both internal factors that they can control (e.g., how they can best promote grass-roots participation in the work of the council) and external factors (e.g., the changing demographics in the school community). Effective succession planning goes beyond replacements for school council positions. It involves a school council discussion about what capabilities are required for the council as a whole and how these capabilities may be best developed for the future.
Succession planning for specific positions such as school council president and treasurer (as well as school council sub-committee convenors) is also important. This planning involves:
Code of conduct
An effective council promotes broad agreement about values (as reflected, for example, in a shared code of conduct) and demonstrates these values through standards of behaviour. School councils should ensure that all members have a copy of (and have read) the Director's Code of Conduct (as issued by the Victorian Public Sector Standards Commissioner). A director and member of a board of a Victorian public entity, including a school council, must:
It is important to build the capacity, over time, of the school council to be effective through:
A council should ensure that all new members are given adequate support, documentation, mentoring, respect and feedback. A council induction package may include all or most of the following:
A mentor may be available to answer questions a new council member has outside of council meetings and act as a sounding board for ideas or issues the new member may want to test before raising them in a full meeting. In this way, stakeholders (including parents and students of diverse backgrounds) are well-equipped to play their part in shared decision making as enfranchised and informed participants.
One-off training workshops can provide a useful introduction to the general roles and responsibilities of school councils. However, if the quality of governance practices in all schools is to be continually improved, there must be an investment in ongoing forms of professional learning for school council members, including the capacity to undertake in-depth analysis of the specific issues and challenges in a particular school, network or region.
Effective professional learning for school councils is:
It also recognises the voluntary nature of school councils (except for the principal), and the wide variety of life circumstances, experiences and areas of expertise of council members.
A key role of a school council is to facilitate school community conversations about current educational policies and frameworks and how all stakeholders can work together to improve students' educational experiences and learning outcomes. Such conversations involving stakeholders enable mutual learning and complement the professional knowledge, skills, experience and leadership of the principal and teachers.
Not developing an in-depth dialogue is a common reason for why school improvement efforts can fail. Many principals and school council members suggest that school community conversations can lead to unforeseen innovations and improvements.
Schools that organise workshops and forums in which teachers, parents and students are involved in exploring key questions together benefit from the many ideas and insights which a leadership team, education sub-committee and school council can build into a shared framework for learning. These interactions are referred to as 'powerful' conversations. Powerful conversations can open up new possibilities for practice by helping a school and its community to:
Good facilitation is the key to a successful school community conversation. Schools often use an experienced, independent facilitator who can promote genuine dialogue and consensus. The challenge is to optimise the opportunity for everyone to express their opinions, and to draw the variety of views into one voice, respectful of dissent, without creating a fake consensus at the lowest level. A tangible result of a school community conversation may be the development of a shared, school community-wide understanding and policy framework for 21st century learning. In this regard, in partnership with schools and DEECD, VICCSO has created a practical, state-of-the-art tool to support face-to-face and on-line conversations in school communities.
Ground rules for conversations
In addition to their formal standing orders, many schools develop ground rules for productive meetings and powerful conversations. Ground rules can be of tremendous importance - and yet are often overlooked as a tool. Devoting an hour to working on ground rules can save countless hours in the future. It is also important to refer to them regularly. Some schools print them on a poster that is taped to the wall so they are visible at every meeting. Ground rules can be added to standing orders. The following rules are drawn from the ground rules used by several schools. They are relevant to any small group, committee or school council meeting as well as larger community forums.
Sample ground rules
We understand that:
Building consensus and resolving conflict
Differences of opinion are inevitable. They can play a positive role by helping to deepen everyone’s understanding of the issues, and to develop more creative solutions. Left unaddressed, however, they can ruin working relationships and divert attention from really important matters and advancing the common interest.
When council or committee members cannot reach agreement on an issue, the chairperson may encourage members to delay the decision to allow further consideration. On occasions, with major issues, a facilitator may be called in to assist the group to reach a position everyone can accept.
If a serious conflict does emerge, two common approaches are to either ‘slug it out’ or to seek to avoid the problem altogether. It is best to seek an alternative to these 'fight' or 'flight' approaches, as both tend to backfire. A better alternative is conflict resolution, which helps people deal with their differences in ways that are not adversarial or confrontational. It focuses on encouraging both sides to deeply understand what the 'other side’ is trying to achieve, and what they may be trying to protect.
Participants may then look for ways to incorporate these understandings into a solution that all can accept as a way to go forward in the best interests of all. If this process fails, the conflict may require third-party mediation. The Department has useful guidelines, tools and resources for preventing and dealing with conflict.
To arrive at the best decisions, a council will require high-quality information and advice from well-functioning sub-committees together with meeting procedures that are fair and effective. Proper meeting procedures make sure that council meetings are run in a productive and efficient manner (no longer than 2.5 hours). The rules for meetings are usually written down and called standing orders (see the Department's sample standing orders). A council develops its standing orders according to its school values and shared understanding of good governance.
Explaining standing orders is an essential part of the induction process for new council members. Every council member should have a copy in a folder that also includes minutes and other documents.
The carefully prepared agenda (the list of matters the council will be asked to consider) and related papers should be sent at least five working days before a meeting. This ensures that everyone has a chance to think about issues before the meeting and to know the deadline if they wish to submit an item for the agenda. The Department has a useful agenda and minutes template to help structure meetings and minute taking.
The council-approved policy to which each agenda item relates can be identified on the agenda. This assists a council to stay focused on its more strategic role and to monitor how agreed council policies are, in fact, influencing school decisions, action and practice. Another way to do this is to have a major policy focus item on every second meeting agenda - as a key issue (e.g., developing a school's technology plan or a P-12 cluster model of education) to be discussed and agreed on, ideally following previous in-depth consideration by the relevant sub-committee.
In the course of a year, there may be three or so such policy-focused forums so that largely procedural meetings alternate with brainstorming and analysis of a key issue. Normal school council business will still be dealt with, but time would be put aside for the forum, and a keynote speaker may make a short presentation. By alternating procedural and policy-focused meetings, a council is less likely to be a burdensome monthly meeting 'treadmill' for management and council members are less likely to become bogged down in operational issues that are not strategic.
Competent chairing of meetings
A key role of the school council president to ensure that each meeting is efficient and effective and helps to cultivate a real sense of community. The president should:
A president may also ensure that there is external professional assessment of the council's performance at least once every two years as well as ensure that there are other interim evaluations.
Sub-committees are the backbone of an effective governing board. Sub-committees have clear purposes and terms of reference and procedures for agendas, minutes and reporting to the council. They make recommendations for the full school council to consider. The membership, purposes and terms of reference of sub-committees are decided by council.
The terms of reference should directly relate to key council functions and powers, including school policy issues and current policy development, so when matters arising at a meeting need further work, council has a structure and process in place to refer them for further investigation and recommendation.
School community members with a particular interest or expertise in the business of a sub-committee may be invited to join. It is important to have a proper structure for such reports. The Department has a useful sub-committee reports template to assist you.
Schools find that 'less is more' - it's obviously better to have a small number of well-functioning teams than lots of committees, some of which may be 'going through the motions'. Sub-committees should determine their meeting frequency. They do not necessarily need to meet monthly. Some sub-committees may only meet 3-4 times a year, if focused on policy development and planning for the future, while others may need to meet quite frequently during busy periods.
The principal, staff and school council may from time to time review the numbers and types of school committees and identify:
Such teams are not just focused on internal school matters but may address broader issues that are of importance both to the school and to groups (e.g., a sporting club) within the community. Examples of school council sub-committees that may be high-level, whole school community teams that are sharply focused on policy development include:
Some schools have rebuilt their leadership structure around a small number of policy-focused sub-committees, providing a sharp (and shared staff and school community) focus on improvement.
Strong teams, sub-committees and partnerships promote mutual learning and joint work among all stakeholders within and external to the school. Joint governance arrangements will also become more common as governments and school communities seek to address increasingly complex issues outside the control or influence of any one school.
With joint governance arrangements, it is important to work out the:
Partnerships that school councils consider as key policy and planning areas for discussing and progressing include:
Some schools develop a family-school-community partnerships policy which becomes a core influence on all decisions, actions and practice. Students can be co-opted as community members by school council. They have two-year terms of office like other members and have full voting rights. It is recommended that councils with provision for community members have students as members. A commitment to student membership of the council may be part of a school council's student participation policy and strategy.
Cultural and social inclusion
The best councils are those that are inclusive, comprising people from all walks of life and representing a wide variety of views and skills. Good councils reach out to people who may be co-opted as community members but also make sure that they remain strongly representative of their own local stakeholders. Key questions are:
To focus on inclusion, both to bring about better, more participatory governance and to continue to improve the educational experience of all students, school councils develop a diversity strategy or a cultural and social inclusion policy and plan. One way to build inclusion is to make sure that council meetings are open to the school community. Community members should be encouraged to attend these by publicising the meetings and agenda items as well as including reports of previous meetings in the school newsletter and/or on the school's website.
A school council should make sure that:
Open and transparent reporting and communication, together with a high level of school community awareness of the work of a school council and its decisions, are integral to good governance.
The good practice of some schools is to include council meeting agendas, reports and minutes in the school's newsletter and on its website as well as the dates of upcoming meetings. There may also be contact details for council members (with their agreement) as well as links to previously agreed policies.
This good practice can be assisted by a policy and plan for better school communications. The aim of this plan may be to improve a school's website and newsletter content and lay-out. It may include strategies for improving the distribution of school council information such as reports, etc. The Department's school communications toolkit is very useful in this context as it provides a range of ideas.
Good governance is, ultimately, realised through evaluating the performance of the governing body and identifying opportunities for improvement in governance. The features of good governance outlined above can be adopted as indicators, to be used each year to assist the school council to reflect on its performance as a governing body.
High-performing school councils tend to do more than an annual review to ensure ongoing improvement. Performance evaluation should be an ongoing process, not restricted to an annual event. Many school councils periodically issue an evaluation sheet at the end of a council meeting. This can be an easy way to gain quick feedback and encourage discussion and interaction between council members. It may require little time or effort to put in place.
Good governance practices are as important at the network, regional and statewide levels as at the local school council level. Not only should all four levels be developed together, but people at all levels should have opportunities to interact. If the governance roles and responsibilities of any one of the levels are underdeveloped, the system as a whole is weakened and its impact on improvement in student learning outcomes diminished. Strong, co-ordinated governance has the following elements:
Subsidiarity is an important issue within education systems that have adopted policies which result in the decentralisation of many powers from the central office to the regional level and local governing bodies. Many major decisions about education and learning are obviously best taken by the people who work in schools, in partnership with those affected by this work, including parents and students.
The quality of governance is pivotal in building strong partnerships and improving educational performance and learning outcomes for all students. Good governance can be built in two ways: