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A board’s job - to “do” or to “ensure the doing”?

STA News, November/December 2010

Successful boards are characterised by their strong focus on governance activity and their refusal to allow themselves to get distracted from “keeping their eye on the learning outcomes".

Boards are often at risk of being distracted by legislative requirements, including compliance and information arising from changes in legislation that, because boards are the legally accountable body, they need to comply with. This flood of material can often seem to overwhelm important requirements like student achievement data (asTTle, NCEA, planning and reporting).

Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that not enough thought goes into the preparation of the verbal messages and written documentation provided to boards, with the risk that you, as board members, are continuously receiving and having reinforced the Wrong messages about your role.

Let’s look at a couple of recent examples:

Boards are not required to “do” stress compliance under health and safety, nor are they required to “do” fire compliance under the fire safety and design guidelines.

What boards must do is ensure that your school has complied by delegating or requiring.

Principals will rightfully say boards are getting them to do the work. Yes - absolutely correct! The 80 plus hours a year task of governance is not the right place to prepare fire briefs or whatever. If there is a workload issue at the management level of the school, so be it, but do not add that work into the board’s job.

If the law or regulations say “trustees shall..." then you have the responsibility, not the job, of complying. John Carver the international governance expert would say such issues should go on a “consent agenda" at your meetings. Identify the result asked for, delegate the task if appropriate, ensure that it happens, and move on to the important items on the board agenda.

And speaking of the board meeting agenda, have a good hard look at it. It is your meeting to govern the school, not a management meeting seeking your approval, or spending hours going through those new legal requirements. So you, via your board chair most likely, control the agenda so that you can see, hear, or make decisions about your strategic plan or the monitoring of targets identified within that plan.

If anything on the agenda doesn’t directly inform that need, question why it is on the agenda. Getting involved in the day to day detail of the school can feel seductively like good governance, but often it is simply school procedural issues that you do not need to deal with.

The truth is that if the educationally based targets established in your planning are being met, and you have good feedback from your community, then it is likely your principal and staff are doing exactly as intended, and you have absolutely no need to check or know more. Congratulate your professionals and move on.

Keep focused on outcomes and your job is very straightforward, but demanding. What goals did we set for our school? What result did we get? If we are not succeeding, why not? What do we need to do to get back on target?

The demanding bit is working through the important questions so as to understand what is wrong and what is needed to remedy it. Your task in this remains focused on “what is the result required”? It is the principal and his/her staff who have to have the professional knowledge necessary to achieve that result. If there is a resourcing issue, that may well come to the board for approval, and the professional staff need to be accountable for proposing a solution, at a price, just like any other profit or not­-for-profit board, and then delivering the solution. Keep your eye on the learning outcomes. That is worthy work for the board on behalf of your community’s

Boards must stay focused on the important job of creating the strategic direction for your school, out of wide and ongoing consultation with all parties. Monitor performance against the plan. Manage your own board processes in a positive, efficient, and effective manner, and advise and consult continuously with your community, no matter how hard that is. If your planning and monitoring are well organised then you have the perfect reason for providing information to your community, and this at the same time gives you the ongoing ability to seek their diverse opinions and ideas to inform your future plans. That continuous “to"ing and fro’ing" with your community underpins all governance responsibility.