Getting good governance right – helpful tips to improve your school

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Good governance is at the heart of all good schools.

One essential way to lay a solid  foundation of good governance is to help create and nurture a meaningful relationship between the Chair of the board and the Head. 

Just how mutual respect and trust underpins this relationship must be treated with conscious consideration from both parties.

Maintaining open and honest communication, to ensure that the connection is genuinely a two-way street – where regular practice fosters trust and any issues are flagged and dealt with efficiently and effectively.

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To help establish and maintain good governance in your school, these tips can help:

1. Understand roles and responsibilities

Outline individual director responsibilities clearly, complete with a detailed explanation of  organisational expectations and board roles that are clearly defined.

Having an up-to-date awareness of each board members’ responsibilities and expectations is key, and is a proactive, professional way to ensure individual directors or board members are effective in their roles and duties.  

According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), individuals who join school boards should receive  letter of appointment or engagement that clearly defines the board member’s role and should include:

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  • The date of the appointment/nomination
  • their duties, responsibilities and role
  • the term of their appointment, as well as any conditions or limits
  • expectations in relation to their governance role, potential advocacy, conflicts of interest, fundraising and any operational or public profile activities
  • details of relevant induction processes.

2. Board composition 

Putting together the combination of people on a board must take in each individual’s background and expertise – as well as an understanding of the knowledge and experience of each individual can help build the board’s collective capability.

Boards that have a range of diverse but appropriate skills and experience will be better equipped with any potential issues.

3. Purpose and strategy

By establishing a clear vision, strategy and purpose, the board plays a vital part in providing direction to the school.

To better inform school boards, being able to answer the following questions will help clarify purpose and strategy:

  • Why does it exist?
  • What does it do?
  • Who does it serve?
  • How does it deliver its aims?
  • How will it measure its success?

For schools, these answers may be obvious. But without these answers, the clarity – and, therefore, the purpose and strategy about how a school is run will be missing.

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4. Risk recognition and management

By putting appropriate systems or risk oversight controls in place, schools can help increase the school’s ability to deliver on its purpose.

Because risk is a key responsibility of the board, schools should first establish their risk appetite, oversight, recognition, management, treatment and control.  The wide range of risks that schools need to consider may include:

  • Employment and staff issues
  • Equipment and physical spaces
  • Compliance and legal risks
  • record management
  • governance
  • finances
  • reputational
  • environmental
  • strategic
  • stakeholders.

To respond to these risks, boards need to:

  • identify the risk
  • analyse the risk and its potential impact
  • establish the school’s risk appetite
  • prioritise the risk
  • develop a risk register
  • implement strategies to manage risk
  • Conduct regular process reviews to assess risk within the school.

5. Organisational performance

How effectively a school delivers on its purpose can be difficult to assess. 

Regardless whether a school is run as profit or not-for-profit, boards should consider how the school’s available resources (financial, human, intellectual or physical) are utilised. To achieved expected outcomes, they must be managed in a way that is both effective and efficient.

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Once purpose and related strategies are made clear, creating strategic planning processes to track progress (i.e. key performance indicators (KPIs)) is important.

6. Board effectiveness

There are ways to improve the effectiveness of a school board, including:

  • strategic planning of board-related activities
  • running board meetings effectively
  • conducting regular assessments
  • developing and measuring quality assessment indicators for the school
  • appropriate board structures
  • assessing board and director’s performance regularly
  • effectively utilising board sub-committees
  • board succession planning.

7. Accountability and integrity

The transparent flow of timely, appropriate information underpins the foundation of a healthy board and creates good governance within a school.  It can also help build and enhance an effective working relationship between senior school management and the directors, as well as facilitate greater accountability to stakeholders.

8. Organisation building

Working to strengthen the capacity and capability of the school is a school board’s key role.

The board serves the best interests of the school to help ensure the school develops and implements strategies that are supported by policies that are designed to align with the school’s constitution and complete key objectives.

Putting systems in place to meet key milestones may require:

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  • Establishing an effective leadership group
  • Filling skills gaps with additional staff training or recruitment
  • Regular assessment of existing staff
  • Establishing policies and procedures that help the school operate efficiently – including policies around student duty of care
  • allocation of financial and non-financial resources 

9. Ethics and culture

A school’s beliefs and behaviours are shaped by its culture and ethics.

The school board sets that tone, by showcasing decision-making that is both ethical and responsible.

The old saying about the way a fish rots from the head is true. Nurturing school culture happens from the top (the board) down and can impact everything from staff morale and retention to student absenteeism, as well as the potential for regulatory and legal issues.

10. Engagement

A stakeholder is someone with a vested interest in a school.  For schools, these stakeholders may include:

  • students
  • families
  • employees
  • volunteers
  • directors/board members
  • donors
  • creditors
  • the broader school community.

Schools have many opportunities to engage with their stakeholders. Sending emails, publishing school newsletters or social media updates, or conducting occasional surveys of the community are ways to help build and strengthen better relationships.

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Creating good governance in schools is multifaceted and something that requires attention to detail. But when schools get it right, great things can happen.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]