Time to rethink Boards of Trustees

Last updated 05:00 20/05/2014

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In 1988, David Lange launched "Tomorrow's Schools" which, among other things, introduced Boards of Trustees as the governing body for New Zealand schools.

While many aspects of Tomorrow's Schools have been beneficial, this feature has caused many issues and it is time it was replaced or at least greatly modified.

From the Ministry of Education's website:

The Board of Trustee' (BOT) role is to:

  • ensure the school has a clear sense of purpose by establishing its strategic objectives, documenting these objectives in a school charter, and monitoring progress in achieving these objectives
  • set priorities and goals for improvement of learning and achievement in the school
  • seek assurance from the management (principal and senior staff) that the programmes being implemented in the school can achieve the goals
  • monitor the school's performance against student achievement outcomes
  • seek assurance from the school's management that the school's resources are being used optimally to deliver the agreed outcomes, ensuring, for example, that resources are available to ensure the knowledge and skills of the teachers are up to date
  • be accountable for the exercise of decision-making rights.

In itself this is not an unreasonable list, and I'm sure responsible parents as well as teachers (and I am both of those) want their child's school run in such a way that children's learning opportunities are maximised, money is being well spent, and that school is a safe, happy, and positive environment.

The issue is that BOTs are not necessarily staffed by people who have the skills, experience, or even will to undertake this role.

There are increasing stories of parents being dissatisfied with their BOT, in particular, in issues around exclusions. To quote School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr, from a recent Stuff article on the legal challenge being faced by Palmerston North Boys' High School BOT over an exclusion, "[there's] a high level of frustration from boards in terms of no-one expects trustees to be legal experts, but there are about 123 Parliament acts that could impact on boards. There is a lot of expertise needed to deal with that".

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Experienced principal and ministry adviser Patrick Walsh says it is "a big ask to expect them to know all the legal framework". But the role of the modern day BOT means they do need to legal (as well as financial and educational) experts.

Every BOT election cycle there are schools who really struggle to fill the places on their board. No wonder, when you look at the knowledge and skill requirements and the amount of unpaid hours they are expected to put in. As a result, far too many BOTs are being filled by people who simply should not be there.

Logically, this is more likely to be the case in small rural communities where those who have the necessary skills will be in shorter supply, and those that do are less likely to have the time to commit.

If you are of the view that nothing is more important than education for developing our future, then why on earth would you think that putting schools under the governance of a random group of people is a good idea? Would you ask for volunteers to come in off the street to teach in the classroom?

I have no doubt the vast majority of BOT members are there because they genuinely want to contribute. However, I know from experience there are a large number that are co-opted and don't really want to be there, and more worryingly, those who are on their school board without having any of the needed skills.

The BOT then elect their own chairperson which again, is not necessarily going to be the person with the best skill-set for the role.

The concept of the BOT is a good one, but schools are far too complex and important to leave the good governance of them to chance.

A good use of education spending would be to professionalise BOTs. A group of appropriately skilled people is needed to cover all the requirements (and the number will depend in part on the size and nature of the school), but they need to be appointed by a committee including an education, legal, and financial expert.

Those BOT members then need better remuneration to reflect the importance of their role and the expertise they bring to it. If the school has good governance from people who have the skills to provide it, then in the long term, children and the nation will only benefit.

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