New research from Monash University’s Business School puts independent school boards under the microscope, pinpointing which factors matter most in determining their effectiveness. The research shows just how sizeable an impact boards have on a school’s financial and academic wellbeing.
In an article for School Effectiveness and School Improvement, Dr Luisa Unda and her colleagues have shown that a school board makes the biggest difference when it is made up of diverse and experienced people, applies itself rigorously to routine practices, and can act independently of the principal’s influence.
With nearly 15% of Australian students attending an independent private school, and a rate of growth greater than either public or Catholic schools, it is crucial that the boards governing them perform at their best. Dr Unda believes this new research “has significant practical implications for the independent school sector in Australia, particularly in Victoria. We have seen high-profile cases of governance failure in independent schools in the past, and our research can provide some insight in how to insure against this. I would say three factors are crucial. One is the diversity of those who make up the board’. Another is how rigorous and probing the board is on a routine basis. Finally, the power-balance between a school’s principal and its board can be very challenging to get right.”
“School boards are voluntary organisations, but they are ultimately responsible for the school’s performance. If they don’t have the right mix of experience and good practice, they easily lose their independence from principals and the professional school management on whom they depend for information and cooperation.” ‘
Dr Unda says that “ideally, boards and principals work together as stewards of the school. However, when principals have too great an influence on the board, it ceases to be independent, with little critical insight. Management can effectively evade scrutiny. Our research shows that this drags down board effectiveness, and that drags down the academic and financial performance of the school.”
Boards with a diverse composition draw on broader range of experiences and perspectives and are more effective in their work, bettering the financial and academic prospects for the school. Thanks to this research, a significant link between diversity and effectiveness has been demonstrated, but there are multiple ways to diversify a board. “Diversity includes ethnicity, gender, age, occupational history, different levels of formal education, and more – what matters most is that boards can draw on different sources yet still reap rewards by having a mix of views”, explains Dr Unda.
When it comes to seeing to key business, those boards that focus on challenging themselves to be more rigorous and critical as part of routine functions may see improvements to their schools’ financial well-being. Academically, schools benefit from better governance via flow-on effects, but boards are able to impact finances directly. “What are boards doing, habitually, to ensure good governance? Do they seek out information beyond what management gives them, do they ask deep and probing questions of principals and management at meetings? Are they preparing adequately before meetings, seeking professional development opportunities, and are they measuring, evaluating and devising ways to improve their performance? If boards can say ‘yes’ to questions like these, they are more likely to be ahead of the game,” says Dr Unda, “it will show up in how the school performs.”
The researchers commend diversity and a rigorous routine as ways to power effective governance, as against excessive influence from principals. “Because principals have both expertise in education and intimate knowledge of the school, voluntary boards are susceptible to what we call “managerial hegemony” – principals and other senior managers can control what the board knows and does, limiting their power of oversight”, says Dr Unda. “This can emerge as much from inherent weaknesses in the composition and practices of the board as from a principal being motivated to evade the board’s control,” explains Dr Unda. “Either way, it will damage the long- and short-term prospects of the school in question.”
“We did not take a narrow approach to defining the academic performance of the schools we looked at,” Dr Unda says. “We asked questions that went beyond NAPLAN and ATAR scores, and encompassed student engagement, admission demands, parent and staff satisfaction, and student retention. This is the broad spectrum of a school’s life that is connected to board effectiveness – as well as financial sustainability.”
For Dr Unda, this research demonstrates why “boards must be robust, being diverse in their composition and shooting for excellence in their practices, and that supports the school and its performance. Boards need to be strong enough to counterbalance the power held by principals, so that they can question, challenge and change the way schools run.”
This article has been made available for free access by MCERA’s Publishing Partner, Taylor and Francis. You can access it here.