Independent schools can improve performance and avoid crises by focussing on a proactive role for school boards and setting a clear framework in which boards and principals share responsibility for running the school.
Some private schools have suffered quite public failures of governance and the question is always raised as to who has ultimate responsibility. Is it the school board, or the principal? To what degree? In what circumstances?
Research suggests that both the board and the principal need to understand that they play a significant and equal role in sustaining school performance.
Dr Luisa Unda of Monash University’s Department of Accounting and her Monash co-authors Zhiyun Gong and Kelly Benati, along with Chin Moi Loh (Singapore Institute of Technology) have looked explain why and how setting out an explicit model of shared accountability can help both principals and boards to enhance school governance.
The work is based on 22 interviews with board Chairs, board members, and principals of 11 Victorian independent schools and indicates the equal weighting of responsibility needs to be shared intentionally.
Drawing out a common understanding of where responsibility lies is a probable first step, says Dr Unda. “Our interviews revealed some striking discrepancies. In answer to the question of who is accountable for school performance, for example, most principals believe they are solely accountable for it, while some board members believe they are ultimately accountable. Yet, other board members seem to suggest that both the board and the principal are accountable.”
This suggests two things; accountability for school performance may not be as clearly communicated as people might imagine between the school principal and the board and blurred accountability is unavoidable in school governance.
Most principals held that they themselves were responsible for school performance based on the fact they are professional educators who run the school. “Their answers were clear and without hesitation,” recalls Dr Unda. “They said things like – ‘me, no question’; ‘me, definitely’; ‘ultimately, me.’”
When board participants members thought that final responsibility for school performance lay with them, they justified this by pointing out that it is the board who appoints the principal. Both the principal and the board can equally justify, based on essential features of school governance, their claims for owning responsibility for school performance. They are interdependent.
Dr Unda believes this should be seen as an opportunity, “Instead of leading to opposing claims on accountability, this has a potential for a shared accountability model for school performance,” she says. “There was a minority, among the board members we interviewed, who took a more holistic view. Both the board and the principal can be held accountable for school performance. I think it is this perspective that represents the best way forward.
“Ultimately, the content of the interviews, and the disparity of opinions expressed, both underline the need for the board and principal to be aligned on their school’s strategic direction,” Dr Unda says. “It must come from both sides – some boards are taking a reactive role, rather than a proactive role. They risk becoming a ‘rubber stamp’. Boards need to actively push against this tendency, by making themselves more visible to the school community and being prepared to be held accountable alongside the school principal.”
Developing meaningful shared accountability and strategic alignment requires a searching discussion of roles and expectations for boards and for management. Developing and laying out a clear idea of how accountability is shared is another challenge that might be faced.
Roles need to be clear – the principal is responsible for the management and operations, the board is responsible for reviewing all the different areas of school performance.
“Written terms of reference can help the board to switch from a more reactive to a more proactive role, as well as maintain clarity about roles and expectations,” Dr Unda says.
A proactive board reaches out and cultivates a relationship with the wider school community. “I believe that boards can enhance their role by making themselves more visible to school stakeholders,” says Dr Unda. The researchers interviewed a board member who saw school events as facilitating this, saying “they are a chance for boards to experience a bit of the school life, but also for the stakeholders, the students, the parents, the staff, to see the board there and learn how they are supporting the school.”
“School performance has many societal, economic, and generational impacts,” stresses Dr Unda. “Our interviewees specifically highlighted the importance of student development, which they described in terms like, ‘the ability of the school for developing potential of the students,’ and ‘setting student up with the skillsets with resilience, with the curiosity to want to enjoy their education.’ Such multifaceted, value-rich ideas of what it means for a school to perform well for its students can help boards and principals develop a vision of shared accountability.” Achieving it, on the other hand, can take a considerable amount of time, patience, and hard work.
Luisa A. Unda, Zhiyun Gong, Kelly Benati, and Chin Moi Loh. (2021) ROLE EXPECTATIONS AND SHARED ACCOUNTABILITY: A FRAMEWORK FOR SCHOOL GOVERNANCE in Financial Accountability and Management, https://doi.org/10.1111/faam.12322