Most of the reforms in public education, particularly in Australia, over the past 100 years, despite their intended effects, have generally seated the running of public education firmly at the centre – with departmental and industrial bureaucracies taking, at times, unyielding control.
But with the advent of community involvement in governance, that hegemony is being challenged.
In New Zealand, the UK, the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia, parts of the US and other public education systems throughout the world, local decision making in public schools is gaining currency with communities, is being resisted by unions and bureaucracies, and is making a difference.
Notwithstanding the indisputable aim of bettering student achievement, the central issue boils down to - "who’s in charge?"
The key questions in public schooling relate to just where the critical decisions about direction, policy, evaluation and standards are made. If state or public schools are to adequately serve 21st century communities, then clearly we need a governance structure that will bring about the effective servicing of those community needs.
Centralised control of public systems is an artefact of 100 years of 'doing it that way'. It is not divinely correct!! Critical decisions are made by people far removed from the classroom, and often who are bereft of an understanding of the needs and aspirations of those using particular schools.
It's time for public schools to go for straight A's – autonomy, authority and accountability.
The most pressing, and single most important issue in redefining public education and making it relevant and of high quality and worthy of public confidence, is the move from public school systems, to systems of public schools. After all, we as parents send our children to schools, not systems!!
Schools should have the autonomy and freedom to make decisions without interference from departmental or industrial bureaucrats far removed from the point of service delivery. They need the authority to make decisions happen, and they need to be accountable to the communities who are their primary clients – not conformance to rules and regulations, but rather performance for results.
But moving to local governance of schools is a major challenge, although successfully achieved in many schools throughout the world.
It means standing up to the political, industrial, economic and social interest groups who benefit from the bureaucratisation and centralised authority of public education, and to recognise that their protests, albeit sometimes, in the language of public concern, are in truth, just plain self-interest.
Public Education is in transformation both culturally and infrastructurally. The evolution of a 21st century relevant curriculum framework; a focus on the quality of teaching; the capacity of school leadership; the utility of our school facilities; the ongoing professional development of teachers; are all key issues for the present and for an innovative and meaningful future for students in our public schools.
The single most significant advantage of a framework of local governance and management is that it allows for the advocacy for continual improvement in all areas of public education, especially the governance and parent participation in decision-making and direction setting.
The process will be complex, the requirements extensive and the need for vigilance, expert negotiating skills, constructive obstinacy and a range of unique and innovative partnerships paramount.
In spite of resistance from conservative principals, many see the advent of strong, locally elected governing bodies as allies, sources of strength and an advance in the move to focus the efforts of schools on the needs and aspirations of their client group, rather than repeat the state determined 'one size fits all' form of education from which we are seeking to move.
School governing bodies provide a formal structure and framework for local decision-making and accountability.
They provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, students and the broader school community to participate in shaping the education delivered by schools through the development and expression of shared expectations.
Efforts by schools to develop in their students a capability for effective and active citizenship should be assisted by having an effective school governing body to demonstrate the benefits of open and informed decision-making.
It is especially important for school governing bodies is to have a significant and influential role in the selection of principals This reflects a view that, in order to secure a strong mutual commitment between a school community and its principal, it is important that the school community, through its governing body, has a direct role in the selection process. The involvement by school governing bodies in the selection of the educational leaders of government schools also reflects the partnership between government and local school communities in the delivery of educational services.
The key responsibility of school governing bodies should be to ensure that the student is the central focus of the organisational system as a whole, and to build the capacity of the school to manage its own affairs and to express the nature and needs of its local community within the framework of Government policy.
A distinguishing feature of public schools is that they are fully and publicly accountable for all aspects of their operation. Their answerability works in two directions. Each public school is responsible to the wider public through the Government for the exercise of its responsibilities. It is also accountable to its local community of users (through the school governing body) for the learning program it delivers and the outcomes that are achieved.
Through local governance there is significant potential for school governing bodies to:
- support the establishment of conditions within and beyond the school that are conducive to student learning and achievement;
- encourage student participation in the life of the school and the decisions that affect them, as well as advocate for the participation by parents and other community members in the work of the school;
- develop ways in which all members of the school community can be consulted about future directions for the school;
- defend and advocate for the educational interests and entitlements of the school and its students; and
- support and advise the principal on connecting more effectively to the community and other relevant organisations.
The governing body is the keystone to building enhanced self-management. It is the public space in which the different needs, interests and responsibilities are reconciled and coordinated, and an essential support base and point of accountability for school management and leadership.
Empowerment of school communities, through parent controlled governing bodies, not only changes expectations and instils community confidence – it usually provides far better solutions to their problems than normal public services.
It can be argued that:
- Community governance has more commitment to community members than service delivery systems have to 'their clients'.
- Community governance understands community problems better than service professionals.
- Community governance solves problems while professionals and bureaucracies deliver services.
- Community governance offers “care”. Institutions and professionals offer 'service';
- Community governance is more flexible and creative than large bureaucracies.
- Community governance enforces behaviour standards more effectively than bureaucracies or professionals.
- Community governance focuses on capacities; service systems focus on deficits (as government education systems are often based on a welfare model rather than an educational excellence model education).
In terms of student aptitude and achievement the equally most important influence is the school. But the traditional factors often over emphasised – teacher salaries, per student expenditure, class size – have little impact on school performance. The real keys are community governance, the clarity of the school’s mission, strong leadership, teaching quality and the degree of freedom and respect offered school communities (community ownership, a mission-driven organisation, and a decentralised authority). To develop these attributes schools need autonomy from excessive external control – from bureaucracies and unions. The more freedom that a school is granted to chart its own course, the more likely it is to become effectively organised.
Local governance and management has the capacity to be the means that holds schools accountable, not from the top down, but through the process of community-use, through achievements and demonstrable outcomes. Through governance we hold schools accountable by giving them autonomy – and by observing how well schools succeed in meeting the needs and aspirations, and therefore the support, of their parents and students.
Leaders can urge schools to improve; legislation can order schools to improve; outstanding principals can force schools to improve. But only community ownership through local governance can motivate schools to improve.
The history of governance in schools is the story of how ordinary people get to have a say in the running of their schools.
The Rationale For Community Governance
Why should there be community governance of schools at all? Why don't we just 'leave it to the experts'? Why don’t we just trust the professionals, and cheer them on from the bleachers?
Two Models for 'Delivering' Education
There are two ways of thinking about the involvement of ordinary people in decision-making in schools. These are founded on two ideological traditions. They are not mutually exclusive, and most of us carry elements of both traditions in our heads at the same time. (Gann, 1998)
The first might is described by Gann as the conservative tradition in which the customer or client is seen as:
- Free from responsibility for the quality of the service, except by complaining about it, or taking ‘business’ elsewhere (if they can?).
- Acting out of self-interest, rather than as a member of a potentially forceful society.
- Reactive to services, rather than proactive.
- Having a single, purchaser-provider relationship with services
- Unlikely to have his/her relationship with the surrounding world altered by the provision of services.
The alternative might be described (says Gann) as a radical model .
In a radical model, the member of the community is seen as:
- Responsible for the direction, content and quality of services.
- Committed long term to the community, and having a complex set of relationships within it.
- Acting in the interests of others as well as themselves.
- Proactive, that is, initiating change.
- Likely to develop an understanding of a relationship with the world that allows some control and a capacity for individual growth.
So what have we achieved through local governance and management. We have-
- enlisted the expertise of the community in order to make the service more efficient and responsive;
- furthered the cause of democratic participation in a state committed to active citizenship;
- helped to educate the community, about education in particular;
- 'pushed back the frontiers of the state' in public affairs;
- given 'ordinary people' the final say in affairs which affect them, so bringing schooling within the mainstream wider society.
Ian Jamieson of the
The second type of body described by Jamieson is the adversarial body – in which schools have failed to find a modus operandi (or way of doing things) which allows councillors to govern and principals to manage. While only a small number, it is these schools when conflict arises, that will get the publicity.
A growing number of governing bodies according to his research achieve the status wherein they take the role of critical friend – that is, one which helps to identify how well the school is doing and then participates to make it better. Increasingly the critical friend role is being interpreted as a proactive part. It requires a strategic view, a steering role, with the overall aim of maintaining and improving the quality of education and standards of achievement.
Evidence shows (Ofsted, 1994) that where governing bodies are fully involved in their school’s planning they have better informed and more effective oversight of the conduct of the school.
Good governance then, is about strategic and visionary leadership, and a means, of ordinary people getting to have a powerful say in the running of the schools in which their children are learning and developing.
Parents or care givers have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and have the right to be consulted by state authorities with respect to the form that education should take and to take part in its governance. Parents have the inalienable right to choose the form of education which is best for their children particularly in the early years of schooling, whether provided by the state or not, subject to reasonable safeguards which may be required by law.
Public schools should have at least the following features on common:
- each school should represent a partnership between the state and the local community;
- the admission policies of public schools should be determined by governing bodies in consultation with the state department in terms of norms and regulations and should uphold guaranteed rights and freedoms;
- the mission, policy and character or ethos of schools should be determined within national and state frameworks by a governing body comprising the main stakeholders in the school;
- the salaries of teachers in each public school should be paid by the state department according to an allocation formula, and such teachers should be appointed in each public school by the state department on the recommendation of and in consultation with the school’s governing body and school management.
Decision-making authority in schools in the public education system should be shared among parents, teachers, the community and the learners in ways that will support the core values of democracy.
The sphere of governing bodies is governance, by which is meant policy determination, in which the democratic participation of the school’s stakeholders is essential.
The sphere of the school leadership is management, by which is meant the day-to-day organisation of teaching and learning, and the activities that support teaching and learning, for which teachers and the school principal are responsible and accountable.
These spheres can occasionally overlap, and there is likely to be considerable multiplicity in the exercise of governance and management roles, depending on the circumstances of each school, but within state standards and a quality framework.
Good public school governance requires a flourishing partnership, based on mutual interest and mutual confidence, among the many constituencies that make up and support the school.
In spite of the conservatism of some key players in public education as participating parents, we choose to go down the path to local governance, not because it is easy, but because it is a challenge; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skill; because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to defer, and one of which we intend to make the most.