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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
It is important that every council member is provided with all relevant information, including:
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.
An effective school council values diversity and draws different views into one voice via:
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:
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.
Some school councils have an action sheet in addition to the minutes. A spreadsheet that is routinely updated may include the following headings:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Some of the most useful tools for school councils/boards and effective meetings include the following:
In improving the work of your school council, the following further tips are also obviously important: