Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

Today's Schools - Governance and Quality

by Simon Smelt, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University

Janet Kelly
President, New Zealand School Trustees Association

First impressions on picking up a book often prove to be correct and this was indeed the case with Simon Smelt's book Today's Schools - Governance and Quality. A preliminary skim certainly generated a mental note to place the book high on the priority list, and the read didn't disappoint.

Smelt's book provides a useful synopsis and thoughtful analysis of the issues arising from the huge changes within our compulsory education sector. Indeed I would have little difficulty in agreeing with much of his comment. The style lends itself to relatively easy digestion, not only to policy analysts and others operating within the education bureaucracy, but also to the lay person, who is, of course, the mainstay of our devolved compulsory education system.

The study concludes that a number of elements would strengthen the existing pillars of the system:

  • A shift of emphasis from inputs to outputs -less focus on control at the front end, and more focus on the school, with clearer accountability at the school level;
  • Greater facility to deal with failing schools (although I would have to wonder whether the possibility of closure of schools seen as failing is a very real or sustainable option); and
  • Greater flexibility in governance arrangements (variations to the governance/ management model are distinctly possible, as the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) has itself promoted).

These points are probably predictable to those in the education sector. I do wonder, however, why studies such as Smelt's exclude what could be described as the "human element", which of course is central to what makes the Tomorrow's Schools reforms actually tick.

There are always inherent risks in studies which draw their content primarily from other policy documents, research or publications, generated mainly from the profession itself, rather than from boards of trustees and stakeholders with parents' interests at heart. In NZSTA's view, one of the biggest risks with this kind of approach is insufficient attention to what could be best described as the "practicality aspects". In other words, to what extent are such studies tested or weighed against practicality at the functional level - in this case, at the school or board level?

Smelt dwells on the distinction between administration and political forms of decentralisation, and looks at the driving forces behind the dynamics of the governance system. The study touches on the limits of the reform, but does tend to focus on structural limitations rather than what could be called operational limitations.

Structural limitations as noted by Smelt relate to:

  • Teacher Salaries
    Responsibility for nearly all school funding was to be transferred to schools. Individual schools could opt out of the collective employment contracts and negotiate their own "site" deal, and could become directly resourced for teachers' salaries. As yet only a small number of schools have chosen to be directly resourced, and none have chosen to negotiate their own "site" deal for teachers' salaries.
  • Inter-School Co-operation
    Education Centres and regional forums were suggested as partial replacements for the removal of the previous structure of regional authorities. In practice, the forums have not proven popular, and concerns have been raised over the lack of structure to facilitate inter- school cooperation and services, and lack of suitable support services.
  • Property
    The property unit of the new Ministry of Education was to be high powered and incentives were needed to promote better use of property. In practice, significant change does not seem to have occurred and schools lack incentives for efficient use or release of property.
  • Parent Power
    A parental advocacy council was set up to represent parents who might feel under- powered in the new system and to look at cases for setting up "schools within schools". This body was disbanded to provide savings.
  • Zoning
    Rather than zoning, enrolment schemes could be used where necessary.

These structural limitations are important but it would have been useful to also look at some more practical elements and to consider the impact they have had on the success or otherwise of the reforms to date. These practical considerations include:

  • The way the reforms were sold
    The Tomorrow's Schools reforms were sold - rather dishonestly in NZSTA's view - on the basis of "partnership", which did not really address the level of accountability that boards of trustees were expected to assume. We suggest that there may be an inherent tension between partnership and governance, given that the board is ultimately accountable and is responsible for making the hard decisions.
  • Unequal power
    Up until 1989, the education system was, and had been for many years, in the hands of the teaching professional. The devolution of power down to the school level, through the creation of the board of trustee structure, represented a significant threat to many teaching professionals who were sceptical that parents could actually control the running of their school. While the shift of power was achieved quite simply through legislation, the transition has taken significant time to bed in at the school level, and has not been totally accepted by all teaching professionals nine years out.
  • Lack of management training
    The principal was, and is, critical to the success of high performing schools, yet to date little practical recognition has been given to this.
  • Support for boards in the governance role
    There is no ongoing, targeted support to assist boards in coming to grips with their governance role or even to assist them in determining what it means at the practical level.
  • Patch protection
    In the early days of reform many principals could not accept a shift in power whereby parents could determine the direction of the school, or indeed accept that they (the principals) were employed by and were accountable to these lay people. In a number of cases there was active resistance by some principals. It is interesting to note that this attitude has not entirely disappeared.

An assessment of these practical elements could have usefully broadened Smelt's analysis, as well as providing the reader with a greater awareness that success or otherwise, as measured from a policy perspective, will not necessarily square with how the "doers" and "deliverers" at the school level perceive it.

The above description of structural and practical limitations could be interpreted by some as suggesting that the reforms have been somewhat less than successful, and have fallen well short of expectations of the government and policy makers. Interestingly enough, there often appears to be a certain impatience on the part of those involved with establishing, making or indeed reviewing policy when envisaged outcomes do not happen within a planned or expected timeframe (if indeed the expected outcomes happen at all).

Yet this is neither surprising nor unexpected when, prior to the Tomorrow's Schools reforms, we had a highly centralised education system and many years of conditioning to think and operate within tight, clearly defined boundaries. The devolution of substantial control to the school level does not of itself produce real change; rather it provides the facility or environment within which change can occur. Legislation can be changed relatively at will- to shift entrenched attitudes and behaviour is another matter altogether.

Smelt rightfully identifies failing schools as a critical issue for the country, and one that does need to be addressed. The reader could, however, easily think that failing schools is an outcome of Tomorrow's Schools, rather than a problem that has existed for many years. The reality is that the reforms have not of themselves provided the solution to the problem!

I found Smelt's perception of the boards of trustees as the centrepoint of the system of school governance of particular interest. The governance role of the board has been the subject of considerable debate between NZSTA and the Government, and remains a topical issue. Smelt links the "role" and "performance" of boards of trustees, and rightly so, as one's view of performance depends on what the board is expected to do. The typical private sector view of governance in a "not for profit" organisation is clear in that the critical functions of the governing body are to define the chief executive's tasks, employ the chief executive and ensure that management strategies accord with the organisation's mission, whereas guidance provided by the Ministry of Education in trustee training to school boards of trustees does not give the same picture.

Under the current trustee model, a board of trustees has the ability to adopt its own mix of governance and management. The legislation sets a broad framework which both boards and principals use to develop effective working relationships.

However, it would be wrong to say that the governance model should be rigid. Governance is not a standard process and the governance/management interface is, I would suggest, variable within any industry in its application. What suits one board and its chief executive officer will not necessarily suit another, and nor should it. The critical element in my mind is the need to have that board/chief executive officer interface well defined and understood, wherever it may sit.

Another area of interest is Smelt's assessment of board support and inter-school cooperation. He suggests that the School Trustees Association "appears to have become drawn into being the agent of the state more than the agent of the boards". This erroneous assumption presumably arises from the fact that NZSTA is indeed a provider of services to boards of trustees. However, the Association operates at two levels - one via the elected executive and president representing the interests of boards, and the other through the "service" arm of the organisation.

As the author correctly distinguishes, boards are empowered with the governance of schools, which includes full employer responsibilities. The employment buck stops with the board, as it does with any other employer! In the Association's role as an employer organisation, it is inevitable that it will be seen from time to time to be aligned with the Government's interests.

Smelt notes that the initial arrangements for training and support for boards in a non- contestable funding environment may have been detrimental to implementing Tomorrow's Schools. The risks of tied (non-contestable) funding undermining the board's role, as identified by the author, are well known, and ones the NZSTA has also grappled with. While these arguments have some validity in the context of a state organisation, or an organisation underpinned by legislation, I believe they are considerably less persuasive in relation to the NZSTA, which is a board-driven organisation with a clear purpose and commitment to empower boards of trustees, not to undermine them, and to be responsive to boards' requirements and interests, not to control them. Far from acting to "limit" the boards of trustees' role, the NZSTA is the only organisation which has a clear mandate from boards of trustees, and which seeks to promote self-management, diversity, choice and opportunity.

The Executive Summary of Today's Schools - Governance and Quality recognises that there is considerable potential to develop the existing system further, and that the optimal balance is unlikely to have been struck as yet, given the dynamics and complexities of the reform process, the interest groups involved, and the outcomes today. We totally agree.

All in all, this is a very readable and useful study, and one that I am sure will be of particular interest to policy makers, stakeholders, and trustees alike.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 11

Today's Schools: Governance and Quality by Simon Smelt

Dec 1998

Print this page.