10/06/2020 - 10:12

Set the course and follow through

10/06/2020 - 10:12


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OPINION: Finding the balance between a school’s governance and management requires clear communication and an agreed direction.

School boards and managers need to understand their roles and work together. Photo: Stockphoto

OPINION: Finding the balance between a school’s governance and management requires clear communication and an agreed direction.

The distinction between ‘governance’ and ‘management’ within a modern-day school setting screams at us louder than a siren at home time on the last day of fourth term.

Experts have made the delineation clearer through the use of an analogy that separates a ‘steering’ function from what is described as ‘rowing’.  

In simple terms, the steering function (or governance) of a board is concerned with charting the school’s strategic direction and having oversight of the execution of those intentions.   

The rowing (or management), on the other hand, is concerned with deployment of resources consistent with that direction under the auspices of the chief executive, who is usually the school’s principal.

As clear as the delineation appears, there is often a very fine line between the two functions. Those who understand their roles will understand the importance of not blurring the two.  

When lines are crossed, it is invariably the case that a school’s leadership team and the board fall out, sometimes seriously. Unless resolved quickly, a downward spiralling of the effectiveness of both governance and management can occur.

While the blurring of the two roles can take place at any time, some believe governance issues are more prone to occur when resources are limited or when issues arise that can affect a school’s brand and reputation.

Experts suggest the distinction between school governance and management is often put to its biggest test during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic – precisely the wrong time for a board to discover disharmony.  

In cases where the line between governance and management is blurred, there is often an urge on the part of some board members to deep-dive into school operations, disrupting or even thwarting the efforts of the management team.

It is tempting for school board members to think they are providing invaluable and appreciated support by involving themselves in management decisions. 

Yet doing the right thing requires board members to assume an entirely different role.

It also often happens that boards overreach when there are specific, ongoing or unresolved concerns about the school’s management. In that sense, board members sometimes jump into the management zone because they believe they are filling a gap that must be filled. 

Just to complicate things, one size does not fit all when it comes to school boards.

Different boards have different powers and responsibilities. Becoming familiar with a board charter is important if the distinction between governance and school management is to be lived and respected.

In fact, some school boards are more like advisory boards and have a completely different set of functions; so understanding the distinction is critical.

At a high level, though, governance involves a set of relationships and processes that directs and controls a school to fulfil a mission or purpose. 

The board is responsible for establishing, maintaining and, when necessary, reshaping a school’s mission. Depending on the powers of the board, this could include the recruitment of a school’s chief executive, or principal.  

Board members act in the interest of their stakeholders: the students, their parents, the teachers, the support staff, and the broader school community. 

Board responsibilities regularly include development of a strategic plan, financial stewardship, strategic risk profiling, ensuring a school complies with relevant laws and regulation, and making sure board members collectively have the right skills and practices to fulfil their governance role.   

More recently, boards have increasingly become involved in monitoring the school’s organisational culture, as well as seeking assurances that cybersecurity risks are addressed.

Experts often summarise school governance roles by referring to two broad sets of functions: policy such as setting direction via a strategic plan; and oversight, such as monitoring whether school resources are deployed in accordance with agreed strategic directions.  

School management is often viewed as the implementation of governance decisions, or put another way, running the school in line with the board’s direction.

Key responsibilities often include development of a school’s teaching and learning program, the recruitment, selection and supervision of staff, the establishment of operating procedures, identifying and mitigating risks, and developing and implementing a budget.

The delicate balance between governance and management is often upset when board members perceive they are not getting enough information from school leaders to make decisions. It can also occur when a board changes the strategic direction of a school without input from management, and when oversight extends to stepping in to resolve operating issues that are the purview of school management.

And when individual board members or the board as a whole attempt to micromanage aspects of a school budget, it will always upset the balance.

While there is a fine line between governance and management, investing in the time to help distinguish between the two will result in both a stronger and more resilient school.

But it also requires board members and the school management team to acknowledge that some overlap is inevitable and, most likely, healthy.

If you are new to a school board, the best advice is to tread carefully until you are clear on seemingly obvious but often subtle differences between governance and management.

• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA


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