School Governance Needs to Change

Over the last six months I have not posted a blog but I have been doing a lot of thinking…and been deeply involved…in the practice of school governance. There has been a great deal of talk about schools needing to change, but little of this has discussed implications for the governance of schools and what additional skillsets might be needed in order for schools to be future focused.

It is now four years since I was appointed by the New Zealand Minister of Education to be an Establishment Board member of a new school in Christchurch. This post isn’t a history lesson but it’s useful to understand that this new school emerged as a result of four schools closing in post-earthquake Christchurch. This has been a time of huge stress for the community, the closing schools and the people who share a strong history in the area.

In January 2017, Haeata Community Campus was opened after three years of planning. The new campus is a Year 1-13 school catering for up to 1200 students, when it reaches full capacity. Typically, a new school opens with a small roll and builds up one year level at a time. Haeata opened with all thirteen year levels from day one – over 900 students with new teachers in new spaces. The name Haeata means new dawn and is a place for considering opportunities and possibilities. I offer the following reflections on the governance of school change based on my journey and thoughts, which may differ from my colleagues.

We live in a changing world, where exponential technologies, global issues and local context weave together to create complex times. In such times there is increasing agreement that education needs to move forward, but not how this should be achieved.  There is no one way, no magic bullet and certainly no formula. That is the first understanding for governing in complex times. So where to start?

Our first role as governors was to work with community to explore the underlying principles and values for the school. We were immediately asked what our vision for the school was – a hard task when you have only just come together as a board. It was the early work we did together as a board though, that has provided direction for the ongoing work of the school.

We worked with community to establish five values for Haeata and it was these that have encompassed all aspects of school design – from the appointment of the principal to recruitment processes to the design of learning. Our five values are:

  • SUCCESS – Every learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options
  • MANAAKITANGA – Every learner having a sense of belonging
  • ALOFA – Compassion, commitment and love ignite action
  • SERVICE – ALL learners mindful of their unique role in making a difference
  • HANGA WHARE – Building the foundation for learners to create their own future

Each of these is expanded in the values for staff. These values were made explicit during our collaborative assessment centres, which formed part of our recruitment process and set the scene for collaborative practice. When you visit the campus you will see that the spaces are flexible and that groups of teachers work together to support the learning of the whole child. We believed that collaboration was key and that learning did not occur in neat little packages.

We also considered the implications of each of these values from a governance perspective, following one of our governance principles “Live the values”.  In order to govern effectively we needed to model the values and ensure coherency of practice.

For example, the value of Hanga Whare focuses on enterprise, innovation and curiosity. From a governance perspective this means we need to support and extend entrepreneurial opportunities in such ways as:

  • Developing ‘people’ policies that encourage an outward growth mindset
  • Enabling staff and ākonga to expand horizons
  • Creating our own governance model that challenges thinking
  • Modelling the use of technological tools to enhance governance as well as all aspects of learning

Each value has guidelines for governance, operational (looking inwards), global (looking outwards) and signposts of success. This coherency is really important as it helps us keep the big picture in mind, following another of our governance principles, “Play the long game.” There are constant demands on boards to conform to a set view of learning and achievement. It is important to understand the obligations we must meet as a state school, but also to question “Is this a requirement or is it just the way it has always been done?” There are many areas where flexibility and creativity are possible, but it is so much easier to follow the status quo. We do “keep learners at the centre.” We want their needs for today and for the future to be met, building on the research about the nature of learning and the seven principles of learning recognised by the OECD’s work on the science of learning. There is a continuous tension between immediate needs and the long term vision and the board needs to manage this constantly.

My key learning:

Start with the why. If the governors cannot find a compelling reason for education to change it is difficult for transformation to happen. You are the backbone of the organisation, providing the support for momentum. The why keeps the eyes facing the new dawn, although the pathway may weave and wander!

Focus. When the role becomes overwhelming focus on manageable chunks and keep working relentlessly on the critical few ideas. You can’t do it all at once, it’s complex and non-linear.

Look out – bring in. Consider the changes that have happened in your own organisations, scan the environment for trends and signals that will affect your school and bring ideas back to your own context.

Consider your context. Work with and know your community. Find ways to blur the boundary of the school so that other services and organisations can be part of the support and learning. Listen to criticism and consider the impact on others.

Balance the balcony and ballroom. Keep the big picture in mind but do the work of the here and now that connects to the big picture. This coherency is important. There will be failures and pressures on the ‘ballroom floor.’ Learn from these, be agile and persevere even when it seems really hard.

Be courageous. Change can be demanding and stressful. Keep communicating. You will need mentors, cheerleaders and provocateurs along the way.

There will be ups and downs, celebrations and failures. It is important for boards to learn from these, amplifying the things that work well and dampening the things that haven’t gone so well. This is constant and demanding work. It requires board members who are courageous, can work together (while still challenging each other) and who can balance the vision with the structures needed to support the school to be future focused.

The need for bold governance is not something unique to schools. A  Deloitte report on The role of the board in an age of exponential change, also highlights the different skills needed to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. The report suggests that denial, delay and defensiveness are typical responses to exponential change. Schools are already having their place in education challenged by other organisations and businesses. Boards that have their heads in the sand may find irrelevance waiting to pounce even although sometimes it is safer and easier to continue with business as usual.

So, I enter back into the online space with many thoughts to share about the future of leadership, learning and exponential change. The last four years have been a time of excitement but also of deep learning about power, influence and myself. At many times I have found myself lacking, I have felt humbled by those I have the privilege of working with – the staff and those in the community who are committed to working for the greater good, for equity and social justice. In the end governance must remain deeply human. What I know is that the best outcomes will be achieved when we work together with the needs of our young people and their futures in mind.

More information about Haeata

About Cheryl Doig

Cheryl Doig is a leadership futurist who works internationally and virtually with organisations, leadership teams and business leaders. She has the unique ability to weave the latest leadership trends with practical strategies and tools, based on her experience in learning, leadership and governance. Her company, Think Beyond Ltd, focuses on challenging and supporting leaders to create outstanding futures.

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