Governance and School Boards: What can go wrong and what you can do about it

Related expertise
Special Counsel

School Boards are often confronted with complex and delicate issues, from relationship breakdowns, community tensions, repeated and escalating complaints, principal burnout and the prospect of Ombudsman or Human Rights Commission investigations. In this article, Duncan Cotterill Education Law Special Counsel Madeleine Hawkesby addresses some of the key issues that can go wrong and how they can be managed.

New legislation and its implications for School Boards

With the advent of the new Education and Training Act 2020, there are three key changes which are particularly relevant for School Boards:

Code of Conduct for School Board members. The introduction of a Code of Conduct will set minimum standards of behaviour and bring School Boards into line with other education sector governing bodies. A draft Code of Conduct is currently being prepared by the Ministry of Education, and will be consulted on before being finalised.
New principal appointment criteria will set competency levels which School Boards can use and consider in the process of appointing a principal. The new criteria will aim to assist in ensuring consistency in the skills, knowledge, competencies and expertise of principals. These criteria are still in development, and the Ministry of Education will engage in consultation before finalising them.
Complaint and Dispute Resolution Panels will be established to hear serious disputes where these cannot be resolved at the school level. These Panels will be free and flexible, with the aim of having Panel membership reflect the local school communities. The Panels will have mediation, recommendation and decision-making functions, and will hear disputes relating to:

  • Rights to education (including enrolment and attendance);
  • Stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions;
  • Learning support, racism and other types of discrimination;
  • Physical and emotional safety; and
  • Physical restraint of a student by a teacher or other authorised employee.

The precise establishment date, processes and regulations for these Panels are in the process of being finalised.

Key points for school boards in avoiding and addressing issues

  • A School Board’s role is one of governance. School Board members should understand the difference between governance and management, and strive to maintain this separation. Where School Boards drift into a management role, this can cause tension and conflicts with Principals and other staff.
  • The School Board should ‘own’ its policies, and understand the difference between policy and procedure. Policies should be regularly reviewed to ensure they are up to date, legally complaint, fit for purpose in the school context, and ensure they are being implemented in practice.
  • School Boards should have a Governance Manual. This sets out the role of the School Board and the Principal, including expectations and practicalities about Board meetings. It ensures role clarity and that appropriate structures and checks and balances are in place at a Board level.
  • If you don’t have one in place, consider creating a Board Member Code of Conduct. This can be kept in your Governance Manual.
  • Whatever disagreements occur in School Board Meetings, ensure that externally the Board speaks as a unified body.
  • Deal with complaints effectively. As much as possible, avoid allowing issues to fester and become longstanding. Make sure your complaints policy is thorough, clear and meets the needs of the Board and the school.
  • Embrace your role as an employer; support your Principal and hold them to account. Ensure your principal’s wellbeing.
  • Keep your community informed, with clear and consistent communication.
    Remember that all School Board communications (i.e. emails, texts, Zoom or Skype messages) are discoverable under the Official Information Act 1982.
  • If issues arise, be prepared to seek legal advice and/or specialist help at an early stage.

For more information or advice, please contact one of our Education Law experts.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is general in nature and not intended as a substitute for specific professional advice on any matter and should not be relied upon for that purpose.

Related insights

Find an expert