Is governance overloaded and overlooked?
Gwen Byrom reviews the critical role of governance in schools at home and internationally
The title of this article comes from the University of Bath’s 2014 study into school governance in England, which, amongst its many valid observations, commented that school governance was overloaded, with governors shouldering too much responsibility. The article saw it as overcomplicated because of a poorly defined but demanding remit, and overlooked, with governors’ work not being publicised sufficiently.
Co-author Chris James notes that there has been little research into governance over the years, with the time spent by governors being poorly recognised. The dearth of research in this area has also contributed to a lack of clarity regarding the role and responsibilities of a school governing body.
Governing bodies have been variously described as a critical friend to the principal, a mechanism for providing support and challenge to a school, the forum for school accountability, a panel of trusted advisors or scrutineers. They have also, on occasion, been classified as the mechanism for providing leadership to a school: this latter definition then begs the question, of course, of the role of the principal and senior team in school leadership.
"The dearth of research in this area has also contributed to a lack of clarity regarding the role."
However, despite the complexities surrounding their remit, the most common responsibilities of governing bodies are seen to be:
Appointment of the principal
Approving the annual budget and any CAPEX
Ensuring the financial stability of the school
Formulating and maintaining a long-term plan for the school
So, what is the position when we look at international campuses of UK brands? Here, governance can be even more important because of the requirements of international accreditation bodies such as CIS. Accreditation by such organisations can be a very useful, if not essential, aspect of an international branch school’s operation. It provides external validation of a school’s quality in addition to, or in the absence of, a national inspection regime or mother school quality assurance visits.
Internationally, governance is more complex than in the UK, due in part to the variety of stakeholders involved in the school. Chris James has identified several different models of governance in operation internationally, from a principal-agent relationship (where the school’s proprietors make decisions for the principal, or agent, to enact) to stewardship models (where all parties are philosophically aligned in working for the success of the school). James also notes that the divisions between the categories they offer were often blurred as a result of the wide variety of operating models of branch schools. This huge variation and blurring of lines between different kinds of stakeholder can make defining the remit of the international governing body even more complicated.
"A majority of parents on the board can result in a skewed focus."
The overall composition of the governing body can also be problematic. ISC’s analysis (2019) of governing body constituents found that 40 per cent were representatives of school’s owners whilst some 60 per cent of members were parents with a child in the school. There can be an in-country requirement for a significant number of parents to be elected as board members. But as NAIS observes, whilst parent governors bring much to the table in terms of their experience of the school from the “other side”, a majority of parents on the board can result in a skewed focus on the school in the here-and-now, rather than keeping a strategic eye on its long-term development.
Interestingly, less than 10 per cent of governors identified as representatives of a mother school.This latter statistic raises an interesting question about how links between the mother school and its overseas branches are supported at school level, if there is little or no input into governance of the school.
"The educational aims of the school can quickly vanish under a balance sheet."
Depending upon the motivations of the owner/operator for establishing a school with an overseas brand, one of the most obvious additional tensions can be in the way the board provides oversight of financial matters. A school needs to meet all its educational objectives by investing wisely in its people, premises, and consumables, but this is set against the desire of investors in the venture for the school to be profitable.
It then falls to the governing body to navigate carefully between these two standpoints, whilst hopefully avoiding the pitfall of becoming heavily involved in the fine detail of school operations in a bid to control costs. Here again, board composition can become important as a support for the principal’s point of view: if there is no education specialist on the board, with the principal in attendance rather than a member with voting rights, the educational aims of the school can quickly vanish under a balance sheet.
In an ideal world, all board members, whether in the UK or internationally, understand the key aims of the school and where their responsibilities start and finish. They also have the time necessary to give the school the care and attention it deserves. When the world is not ideal — and we are all realists — governing bodies of international schools need just as much training and support as those of UK schools in understanding their remit.
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