School Improvement and Governance Network

School Councils

Top ten practical tips

See below ten practical tips for improving governance in a school as well as ten useful tools. School councils use the ten tips to test how far they live up to these practices, and to develop practical actions for improvements.

Principals and school council presidents suggest that what follows is a mix of both good practices that are realistic and do-able and ideals and aspirations that take some time to develop and require sufficient resources and support. We wish to thank the many principals, teachers, parents, students, community members and personnel in Victoria's Department of Education and Training and Victorian Public Sector Commission for their input into the following.

1. Relate all school governance work to the school's purpose

School council members should have a shared understanding of the school's purpose statement, and monitor progress toward achieving the things in the statement. A purpose statement usually puts the student or learner at the heart of everything and thus focuses the school's purpose on supporting their needs, interests, aspirations and experiences.

If a school's purpose (using an example from a secondary school) is to "develop a collaborative learning community which supports and extends all students as powerful autonomous lifelong learners", the obvious questions are: what does this really mean in practice, and what are the best ways to monitor the on-going development of this?

What matters is how a school council's plans, policies and partnerships - the '3Ps' - support the school's purpose and how people work together to improve students' educational experiences, learning outcomes and life opportunities. The council does not involve itself in operational issues; enhancing student achievement through the impact of the 3Ps is its focus.

Ways that schools do this include:

  • The principal and council president make sure that the meeting agenda always has a focus on core parts of the school's purpose and the goals and student outcome areas in the school's strategic plan. To do this, they pare back the agenda to highlight the things that really matter, and make sure that the agenda does not distract from the council's governance role of setting and monitoring policy and goals
  • The principal's report at each council meeting may include a focus on discussing one of the goals or a part of the purpose statement, and the current work to achieve or improve it
  • Council members are invited to suggest an agenda item for the next meeting that will inform the council about an aspect of the school's work or progress toward the school's goals, and provide an opportunity for the council to look at how its work is contributing to the goals.

The agenda is pivotal. A focus on the school’s goals and priorities helps a council to stick to the 3Ps and not be distracted by operational matters. Organising an agenda around school community goals and priorities (such as the shared policy goal of stronger school-family-community partnerships and an anywhere, anytime e-learning vision to support students’ increasingly personalised learning) also strengthens the links between the council, leadership team, staff and school community.

2. Be crystal-clear about the role, objectives, functions and powers

The Department of Education and Training affirms that a school council’s objectives are to:
 
  • Assist in the efficient governance of the school
  • Ensure that its decisions affecting students of the school are made having regard, as a primary consideration, to the best interests of the students
  • Enhance the educational opportunities of the students of the school
  • Ensure the school and the council comply with any requirements of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, the Regulations, a Ministerial Order or a direction, guideline or policy issued under this Act.

It is important that the role, objectives, functions and powers of the council are understood in a detailed, practical way by all council members, and every member has a copy of the documents that specify what a council does. Footscray City College is a great example of how a school council's role and responsibilities are clearly set out.

Some schools develop an on-line repository of key documents for ready access. These documents include DEECD's Making the Partnership Work and other guidelines. Putting aside time at the start of each year to discuss the most important work of a council, a council ensures that all members are 'reading from the same page' and makes it more likely that a council provides direction, leadership and oversight without inappropriate involvement in operational matters.

The effective functioning of a school is assisted by understanding and respecting the distinction between school governance and the professional management of the school. If council members seek to micromanage the school, there is a lack of clarity about a council's role and the policy and strategic issues for which council members' knowledge, skills and perspectives are needed. A great council is engaged in policy and strategic discussions and decisions that make the best use of members' time.

In relation to the school council objective of 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 all students' learning. 

3. Develop a workplan for policy, planning and reporting 

It is good practice to have a clear, coherent strategic plan that is owned by the school community and includes at least one shared school-family-community goal such as the better use of learning technologies to personalise learning, and to publicly display the shared vision and goals to the school community in a variety of ways (e.g., via the website and posters on classroom walls).

It is important that council members participate in strategy discussions and updates and upcoming reviews or development of school plans and policies. Some councils place a policy focus item on every second meeting agenda - as a key issue to be reviewed or discussed and agreed on. By alternating procedural and policy-focused meetings, a council is less likely to be a monthly meeting 'treadmill'. Policy issues are first discussed in detail in the relevant sub-committee.  

Some schools put together a school council calendar that identifies in advance the opportunities throughout the year for council input. One way to do this is via a school council workplan for the year.

A simple Word table may be used with months along the top and focus areas along the side. These areas may include Strategic Plan, Student Progress and Achievement, Finance, Curriculum, Policy and Council PD. The workplan can help focus a council's work on the school's purpose as well as in planning its key role in monitoring performance, and thus assists a council to be clear about:

  • What the school is seeking to achieve over time
  • What information it needs to monitor the progress
  • When and how best the information is presented.

With financial reporting, all school council members should understand and carefully consider the financial reports provided at monthly meetings. The finance training program as part of Improving School Governance can assist all school council members to develop this financial literacy.

Policy work

School council members 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 challenge or issue under consideration by the school. It draws together school council and community members so that there is a shared understanding and a framework for future action. Examples of school policies include:
 
  • Curriculum
  • Teaching and learning
  • Personalised and seamless learning
  • Technology and eLearning
  • Communication between the school and families
  • Health and well-being
  • Parent, family and community engagement.
Good policies are essential because they let everyone know what the shared approach to certain matters is and ensure that there is consistency in decisions and in how the school operates and optimises student learning, engagement and achievement. Sufficient time should be put aside for policy development, including in sub-committees and teams.  
 

What is a good way to develop educational policy?

Through its educational policy-making work, an education or teaching and learning sub-committee or team of a school council can be a powerful vehicle for improving learning outcomes. It can bring together teachers, parents, students and critical friends to:
 
  • Exchange information and share experiences and perspectives
  • Pose questions and clarify viewpoints
  • Jointly explore the best available educational research
  • Help develop a shared, school community-wide understanding and policy framework for 21st century learning.

For the development of major policies, it is important to seek out and facilitate the involvement of those who will be affected by the policy, including students as well as families.

4. Promote awareness of personal skills and conduct

A skills audit of council members (see point 8 below) is a useful way to raise awareness of the kinds of skills and strengths that an effective council requires. Some councils develop and promote a list of the kinds of personal capabilities that are valued such as the ability to relate respectfully to a wide range of people, strategic thinking, challenging the status quo and questioning, active listening and financial literacy. Induction and training are thus important.

It is important that council members have a copy of the Director's Code of Conduct (as issued by the Victorian Public Sector Standards Commissioner) as well as their school’s code of conduct. Everyone should know precisely what is, and what is not, appropriate behaviour.

The skills of the school council president in chairing meetings are obviously of the utmost importance. The skills associated with good chairing and active listening include:

  • Responding to what people say by nodding, smiling and other actions that show that the chair is listening
  • The chair paraphrasing what a speaker has said or checking that it is understood by other council members, and asking for clarification if need be
  • Using the school's code of conduct and ground rules for meetings as tools for clearly articulating the behaviour expected of council members.

A competent, efficient and inspiring chair obviously makes a major difference to the work of a council. If the chair is not performing the role properly, look at what training may be required.

Roles and responsibilities of the principal and school council president

The principal
 
A principal is responsible for the implementation of school policy and the strategic plan and the day-to-day operation of the school. As executive officer of school council, the principal is responsible for:
 
  • Providing the school council with timely and appropriate advice about key educational and other matters (via the principal's report and educational focus items on the meeting agenda)
  • Reporting to the school council on the school’s performance against its strategic and annual implementation plans
  • Making sure that whatever council decides is acted upon
  • Providing adequate support and resources for the conduct of council meetings
  • Communicating with the school council president about council business
  • Being an ex-officio member of all school council committees. This means that because of his/her official position, the principal may be a member of all committees.
The school council president
 
The role of the school council president is to:
 
  • Chair school council meetings
  • Make sure that the council stays sharply focused on key issues to do with improving the educational experiences and learning outcomes of all students
  • Ensure that at meetings everyone has a say and is heard and decisions are properly understood and well recorded
  • Make sure that the meeting stays on track – this means keeping to both the subject (sticking to the agenda) and time allocated
  • Be a signatory to accounts, contracts and the school strategic plan
  • Encourage participation in the work of the council and its sub-committees
  • Ensure that new council members receive appropriate induction
  • Act with the principal as council’s spokesperson and official representative on public occasions.
The area of overlap in the responsibilities of school council, principal and president is not defined absolutely. What matters is an effective, productive and rewarding collaborative relationship.
 

5. Develop timely access to relevant information and data

It is important that every council member is provided with all relevant information, including:

  • Induction and training - some schools also provide new members with access to a mentor
  • Copies of key school council documents such as the standing orders, constituting order, strategic plan, policy manual, minutes of meetings for the past year, annual report, financial report, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of members and a list of sub-committees
  • Guidelines produced by the Department (such as the online school council training package and school policy-writing template) and other organisations (such as the Great Schools Checklist).

Members of effective councils and boards are data savvy. These council members have direct access to data and are supported in their efforts to learn how best to monitor data and use data to inform the development of their council's plans, policies and partnerships for school improvement.

6. Plan in advance for building dialogue and managing conflict

An effective school council values diversity and draws different views into one voice via:

  • A simple set of ground rules for meetings. Some schools print them on a poster that is taped to the wall so they are visible at every meeting
  • Organising occasional forums in which teachers, parents and students (perhaps supported by a professional facilitator) explore key questions about school improvement
  • Using on-line tools such as Talk & Action to develop an on-going dialogue
  • Making sure that members are aware of guidelines, tools and resources for preventing and dealing with conflict and information about grievance procedures
  • Acting quickly and positively to deal with any relationship strains or breakdowns, using external facilitation or mediation if need be.

7. Use a set of easy practices to make all meetings productive

What's wrong with many meetings? A lot of it has to do with whether or not all participants are aware of what specific practices help to make meetings productive. A council is only as effective as the standards it sets for its meetings. It is good practice that:

  • The standing orders (including ground rules for meetings) are widely understood and adhered to
  • The meeting agenda and related papers are sent five working days before a meeting
  • Council members - as well as school community members through the school's website - are invited to submit items for the agenda
  • The principal and council president jointly prepare the agenda, and ensure that the agenda is focused on a few things that really matter and thus is not distracting attention from the council's governance role of setting and monitoring strategic goals and policy. Some principals and schools suggest that a great meeting agenda is organised around the school's goals, which helps to keep meetings focused on the council's goal-oriented governance and oversight role. Some schools also organise their leadership structure around the school's goals
  • Major policy issues are worked up through the relevant council sub-committee prior to being fully discussed at a council meeting 
  • For every agenda item, there should be a recommendation
  • Any item that calls for energy and fresh ideas or careful reflection about the school's progress toward its goals is placed near the beginning of the agenda
  • 'Minority' views are heard along with 'majority' views so that decisions are made by a majority of meeting participants ONLY after considering the views of ALL persons present
  • A draft of the minutes be prepared within three working days of the meeting.

Minutes are a record of the proceedings and resolutions of a meeting - not a transcript of who-said-what. Less is better, apart from key decisions where sufficient detail should be included to substantiate the reasoning behind the decisions. Keep the school community informed by reporting on each meeting in the school newsletter and on the school website.

Developing the council meeting agenda

Always consider:
 
  • Is it for council's information or action?
  • Does it require action?
  • Does it require council to review a matter?
  • Is it part of the monitoring role of council?
  • Does council need to complete developmental work?
  • Does the council need to consult? With whom?
  • Should the item be dealt with elsewhere? (Sub-committee or working party, especially if an in-depth discussion is required first).

An action sheet

Some school councils have an action sheet in addition to the minutes. A spreadsheet that is routinely updated may include the following headings:

  • Meeting date - at which meeting the action arose
  • Action - a brief outline of the required action
  • Responsibility - who is required to take the action
  • Evidence - an agreed method to show that the action has occurred, and the deadline
  • Comment - listing the current status of the action.

It is best to leave the action sheet to the end of the council's meeting so that it does not use up precious time at the beginning of the meeting. 

Subcommittees and working parties

Sub-committees greatly assist the work of a school council by exploring key strategic and policy issues in more detail than is possible at a school council meeting and providing opportunities to involve and utilise the expertise and experiences of members of the school community (and wider community) who are not members of school council.

Teachers, parents and students - with knowledge, skills and interests in particular areas (including teaching and learning, policy development, future directions in education, community relations and buildings and grounds) - can obviously make a meaningful contribution to all sub-committees.
 
The school council decides the work of a subcommittee or team. A brief document (may be only a single paragraph with dot-points) usually includes the following:
 
  • Purpose - in a few sentences, a statement of intent for the subcommittee or team
  • Terms of reference - clearly stating the responsibilities and expectations of the council for the team
  • Membership - names of members
  • Meetings - minimum requirements for the number and frequency of meetings
  • Accountability - the reporting requirements (such as providing a single recommendation or options) for the council to consider.

Be creative with council sub-committees and working groups. There is obviously no point having committees simply because your school has always had them. Schools find that it is important for sub-committees and working groups to address broader educational issues (such as personalised learning) of importance to the school, families and the wider community.

High-level, outwardly-focused teams that comprise teachers, parents, students and community members may only meet 3-4 times a year and look at policy and school-family-community partnership issues such as:

Schools find that it can be useful for such teams to be co-chaired by a teacher and a parent. Schools also find that 'less is more' - it's obviously better to have a small number of well-functioning teams than lots of committees. Some schools have rebuilt their leadership structure around a small number of teams, providing a sharp (and shared staff and school community) focus on improvement.

Working parties good practice

Working parties form a useful part of school governance. A group may pursue a single idea and make recommendations either to the full council or to a sub-committee for further discussion. It is important for the council to provide strong terms of reference for a working party and a timeline for action.
 

8. Identify skills gaps and have a partnerships policy

It is good practice to identify and act on any gaps in council and sub-committee membership. Some school create a council matrix in order to list the skills, diversity and experience of members. A matrix may include categories of expertise and diverse demographics such as socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender and age.

The best school council membership reflects the behaviours your school expects + brings particular expertise and skills into the council + reflects the diversity and networks of your community.

It is good practice to develop a school-family-community partnerships policy which becomes a core influence on all decisions, actions and practice. Some schools form a team around this and create a volunteer position for a parent to be a community partnerships coordinator.

Councils also discuss improving the school’s broader community partnerships such as becoming part of a P-12 cluster of primary and secondary schools and strengthening links with community organisations and workplaces. An action plan may be prepared to advance this.

9. Have a communication plan to engage the community

A council may develop a policy and plan for further developing content-rich, two-way communication between the school, families and community partners - for example, improving a school's website and newsletter content/lay-out and the distribution of school council information such as reports.

The Department's school communications toolkit provides useful ideas. Some schools also make sure that contact details for council members can be accessed by the school community. It is important that the work of a council is transparent and visible to school community members.

10. Build in routine reflection and improvement

A great school council team is 'self-critical' - reflecting on and reviewing practice. Some schools have a simple evaluation sheet at the end of each council meeting - an easy way to gain quick feedback. Or a short agenda item at the end of each meeting when the members can reflect on how the meeting went, what went well and practical suggestions for the next meeting. Things to look at are:

  • What worked well in this meeting?
  • Did we work well as a team?
  • Did everyone participate?
  • What didn't work well?
  • What do we need to do to improve our meetings?

Ten useful tools

Some of the most useful tools for school councils/boards and effective meetings include the following:

  1. School council yearly workplan example
  2. School council agenda and minutes template
  3. Ground rules for meetings
  4. Standing orders example
  5. Policy-writing template
  6. Talk & Action website and policy-writing tool
  7. Dealing with conflict
  8. Communications toolkit
  9. School council elections guide for principals
  10. Great Schools Checklist.

Further tips

In improving the work of your school council, the following further tips are also obviously important:

  • Do not try to do too much too soon – people may burn out
  • Do not let the pace slacken too much – people may begin to feel that improvement is too hard
  • Look for some small improvements in how your school council works that will be generally welcomed
  • Consider how you can assess your improvements – what does a better school council look like?
  • Set up a time in the year to review and consider the next steps – celebrate the progress too.