Optimising the performance of your school board – practical tips and strategies from the trenches

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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.

Having worked with schools facing many of these challenges we have compiled a list of tips and strategies focusing on how you can optimise the performance of your school board, as well as what can go wrong and what you can do about it. Here’s our list, which you can treat as a kind of check list and a tool to reflect on your own practice as a board.

Key points for school boards in order to avoid and address 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 board’s drift into a management role, this can cause tension and conflicts with principals and other staff.
  • The 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 compliant, 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 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.
  • Ensure that the Presiding Member makes sure that all board members are made aware of the new Code of Conduct and the board reflects on whether there needs to be any additions made to the minimum standards.
  • Principals should ensure they provide effective reports to the board. They should work with the board to ensure that the board is receiving the information they need in order to make decisions and to be kept appropriately informed.
  • The Presiding Member should make sure that they conduct effective board meetings and ensure participation and robust discussion. They should also ensure resolutions are clearly recorded.
  • The Presiding Member and principal should have regular meetings outside of board meetings. They should work together to set the board meeting agenda and have a “no surprises” approach.
  • Whatever disagreements occur in 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; by supporting your principal and holding them to account in equal measures. The principal is your main employee and need to ensure your principal’s wellbeing.
  • Keep your community informed, with clear and consistent communication. Consult with your school community on key issues.
  • Remember that all board communications (i.e., emails, texts, Zoom or Skype messages) are discoverable under the Official Information Act 1982
  • The board should ensure an effective induction process and also regular board training is in place. There are external training courses, and sometimes it is beneficial to bring in someone to provide school governance training to the whole board, so everyone receives the same message. 
  • Ensure effective succession planning. Don’t leave the membership of the board to chance.
  • If issues arise, be prepared to seek legal advice and/or specialist help at an early stage.

We can run training sessions for the whole board, and/or your Kahui Ako on “Effective school governance – How to optimise the performance of your board”.

Please contact Madeleine Hawkesby for further information about training sessions.

Our education team is available for any queries you may have.

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.

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