school governance riot

Inviting students to the boardroom to take part in discussions on setting the direction of future board strategy can be useful input for governance in a school environment, a recent AICD webinar was told recently.

“To have students in the room for part of the conversation around what they think is a point of difference for the school, I think is gold,” said Elizabeth Jameson, AM FAICD, host of the webinar: School Board Governance Part 2 — Developing a Successful Strategy.

There's a much higher expectation now that students are included in strategy and generally speaking, a process which involves them often turns out to be very positive, said Jameson, who is a former chair of Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

Communicating with students about the strategy plan can be a useful way to get them to understand what direction the school is taking and encouraging them to come on the journey, she added.

Dr Amanda Bell, AM FAICD, Principal (Interim) at Kambala Girls’ School and chair of Queenwood School, agreed that having representatives of different stakeholder groups to contribute to the board can be valuable. In the same way, reaching out to focus groups to check on the strategy being set by the board can be another way to gain feedback.

Engaging with the school community in these ways can minimise risks and keep the board readily in touch with school sentiment, said Jameson. “If the board is disengaged from the life of the school, that's a risk,” she told the webinar.

“I think a board that's well engaged in the life of the school and goes through things and talks to people -- not to test them or check them but to get a sense of the school - will have less risk.”

Strategy plans – how long?

How long should a school board set a plan for? Most school boards tend to set an operating strategy across a three to five-year horizon, but it’s also good to lift the sights much further out now and then, said Jameson.

“Three to five years is a good space for the principal and a team to work within,” she said. “But I'm a great believer in also having a longer-term view, looking out even 20 years.”

That can be useful when building a philanthropic program for a school and also developing long-term capital projects which are commonly planned over more than 10 years. Both boards and school principals need to own the strategy plan, she added.

Developing a strategy should take into account the views of stakeholders, the school’s value proposition, its point of difference and its purpose. A board strategy retreat may also be needed to work out the details of the plan.

Once the plan is developed, key performance indicators (KPIs) should be put in place and monitored, in order to track and inform future progress.

What KPIs should be taken into account? These can range over a number of fronts and include academic results, school enrolments and demographics, mental health and wellbeing, engagement surveys with students, parent satisfaction surveys, staff turnover, Year 12 exit surveys, operating profit, re-enrolment numbers year to year, class attendance rates and the progress of alumni post-schooling, the webinar was told.

The strategy should be set using these steps.

Drawing the journey map

  • Set the purpose
  • Strategic thinking – insight and foresight
  • Approve the strategic plan
  • Set KPIs and monitor execution
  • Approve strategic decisions

Follow-up measures should then be taken to cement the process and set the plan in motion.

Next steps

  • Board/ Principal agree on annual cycle/process (including information and people)
  • Board shapes both inputs and resulting plan
  • Board approves the (high level – not operational) plan
  • Board agenda set around ongoing monitoring
  • Make EVERY board meeting and discussion strategic, not only the strategy retreat

Governing schools in a COVID-19 environment

The pandemic provided the ultimate rare opportunity to test the school’s crisis management plans, the webinar was told.  Some schools’ crisis plans were shown to be wanting, while others passed with flying colours. Homeschooling had lasted in Victoria for more than 200 days and teaching had shifted online for students over many months in 2020 and 2021.

“It was amazing to see how quickly and with such utility so many schools managed to take their teaching and learning online, because they take so seriously their core business, and how the wellbeing programs changed to a remote perspective,” said Jameson. Understanding the communication strategies that stakeholders needed, in particular students and parents and alumni, had also been a learning curve for schools, she said.

“One benefit of COVID-19 has been taking a much closer look at some of those things you sometimes take for granted,” she told the webinar.

Despite the pandemic, the division between the governance role of the board and the management role performed by the principal and team should remain and the basic strategic approach taken by schools should not change. However, “the changing environment around us will impact the questions that we're asking about the sustainability of the school, and the support of the school community”.