Independence Journal
Stephen Scott on AHISA Governance Panel
How do you see your role on your school board?

Fiona > To lead a cohesive and productive team to provide governance and support to the school.

Geoff > The Directors of a School have three main tasks:

  • The appointment (and occasionally dismissal) of the principal
  • To provide the principal with support, encouragement and regular feedback on his/her performance
  • To satisfy themselves that the principal (to whom they have delegated all operational responsibility) is performing their role well, in line with the school’s vision and mission, and meeting all legal compliance requirements.

Simon >  I am Chair of Trinity Grammar School’s Council – and the only genuinely independent director in that I have no direct connection with the school as parent, former parent or past student. I am also the only person with direct experience in primary and secondary independent education. So, my role at board meetings – additional to my duties as chair and director – is frequently that of the external, objective observer and the in house educational expert. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that I am the only one at the board table who genuinely understands the complexities and challenges of the head’s role, and so I can provide a perspective and a level of support to the head that others may not.

Steve >  As a strategic thinker, surveying and understanding the interplay between the school and its external environment; a custodian of the school’s organisational culture; and as a check and balance for school management to ensure budgetary controls, business results and legislative and other accountabilities are met.

What do you believe is the mission of your school?

Fiona > To provide an exceptional education in a nurturing environment.

Geoff > In summary, to produce happy, healthy high-achieving young people.

Simon >  We have departed from the notion of mission and opted for a declaration of purpose: An aspirational learning community that inspires every individual to thrive and contribute positively to society.

Steve > I don’t have a school at this time however, a mission statement should be a purposeful, distinctly unique, and high value statement that unites the board, council, staff, parents and students and sets boundaries for the efforts of their contributions.

What skills do you believe are required around the board table for good governance of a school in today's environment?

Fiona > Strong business acumen. A comprehensive grasp of risk and compliance. A good work ethic.

Geoff > A mix of skills is required around the board table. Mentone produces and regularly reviews a skills matrix of board members. This helps us identify skill gaps which is useful in recruiting new directors. A mix of gender, age and backgrounds is important. A mix of current parents, alumni and independent directors is desirable also.

Simon >  I think that the last two years have demanded a range of enhanced skills beyond those demanded of school boards in more normal times. At the top of this list would be the capacity to be responsive, adaptable and nimble in decision making. Given the rolling fluidity of the pandemic, boards have had to convene at short notice, respond quickly to changing contexts, and make rapid decisions. This has demanded increased levels of trust in the school leadership team – but with a great expectation of direct and active involvement of all directors. Hence, good governance has required heightened levels of commitment, enhanced communication within the board and with the school leadership, and a preparedness at times to simply roll up the sleeves. Most importantly, the heightened emotions and stresses of the pandemic has at times exacerbated the perennial conflicts of interest sometimes presented by directors who are also parents and who fail to adequately resolve their personal perspectives and their responsibilities in making the best decisions for the school. Hence, more than ever, the capacity to separate the two roles (parent and director) is a requisite skill and behaviour.

Steve >  A baseline skillset mix should include: a leader of leaders (the chair) to control and lead efficient board meetings; financial accounting for a rear-wards view of finances; an economist for a forward-looking view of economic health; risk management; an educational professional; a tertiary professional; clergy in a faith-based school; and an architect if the school is embarking on a long-term major program of building works.

If a board chair / member, what qualities do you look for in your school principal?

Fiona > A strong leader who can lead the educational team and other staff members and develop a school for the future. A strong grasp of business operations. Someone who is personable, approachable, with a forward-facing mindset.

Geoff > ‘Presence’, good communication skills, an ability to articulate the school’s vision and mission to all members of the school community, a willingness and ability to engage with others, strategic thinking, the ability to effectively delegate, a collaborative leadership style and a good understanding of the theory and practice of teaching and learning.

Simon >  Openness; honesty; authenticity; integrity; balance; ability to regulate emotion; confidence; compassion; strategic thinking; depth of educational leadership; ability to connect and communicate with multiple stakeholders and communities.

Steve >  Courage – to challenge the board with fresh, innovative and thought-provoking concepts and ideas and deal with resistance. Humility – to listen and exploit the skills and experiences of their board directors and leadership teams Perspective – to think well beyond their own wheelhouse and consider what others might be considering as risks.

What are the three most important things board members can do to assist their principal and the organisation?

Fiona > Provide guidance and support, a sounding board when needed for the principal. Ensure board members receive appropriate training. Maintain confidentiality and have the best interests of the school first and foremost.

Geoff > Encourage the principal: as Elizabeth Jameson says, “Try to catch principals doing the right things rather than catch them out doing the wrong”. Don’t stray into operational areas. Learn how to ask good questions. E.g. not, “Why don’t you ban mobile phone use at the school?” but rather, “Can you explain the thinking behind the school’s policy on mobile phone use by students?”

Simon >  Externally being seen to always support the principal and present a unified alignment with the board, the school and its institutional values. Thoroughly read all board papers, be prepared for board meetings, understand the role of director; ask thoughtful, constructive and critical questions. Seek to build knowledge and understanding of the business of independent schools – if a director is making a decision about the strategic future of the school, for example, he/she needs to have a grasp of the potential future of teaching and learning rather than simply interpolate educational futures on the basis of their past. 

Steve >  To listen, understand and ask questions. To refer all operational matters to the principal. To empower the principal by giving them as much autonomy as possible, while maintaining control mechanisms to monitor their performance.

What are the three biggest mistakes board members make?

Fiona > To allow egos and personalities to obstruct the decision-making process. To interfere in the day to day operations of the school.

Geoff > Thinking like a parent, alumni, etc rather than like a director who has the interests of the school as their central focus.  Straying into operational areas. Not having a clear understanding of what constitutes a conflict of interest.

Simon >  Failing to recognise the inherent conflict of interest between their role as director and being a parent. Seeing themselves as representatives of a particular group within the school community rather than directors of a company – and all the accompanying statutory responsibilities. Spending too much time on the operational functioning of the school – doing the work of the school leadership team – and spending insufficient time on what should be a primary focus on the strategic future of the school.

Steve >  Not undertaking regular principal performance appraisals and salary reviews. Allowing emotion to cloud or control decision-making. Becoming too operational rather than challenging the principal to be more strategic.

If you had unlimited resources what is the one thing you as a board member would like to do for your school?

Fiona > Create unique learning environments and spaces for our students which would enhance learning for the future.

Geoff > Provide the necessary support and administrative staff to free teachers to focus on their core task of teaching and learning. That is, free teachers from administrative and other duties which are not associated with teaching and learning.

Simon >  A big question!!!!!! In short, create a learning environment that builds upon all the lessons learnt about how young people learn best and which prepares them for their lives as contributing citizens in the 21st century.

Steve >  Resource a whole-of-school leadership program that infuses the school’s culture with one language of leadership that spans the principal’s office to the prep teacher’s classroom.

If you could swap jobs with a staff member for a day, what would you want to try and why?

Fiona > I would like to swap with the principal so that I could gain a better understanding of all the challenges she faces on a day to day basis and also so that I can connect better with students, staff and parents.

Geoff > Grade 3 classroom teacher. By Grade 3, students have learned the foundation skills (literacy, numeracy and thinking), and are energetic and enthusiastic learners who believe that they can do anything. To teach these students would be, I imagine, very satisfying.

Simon > Probably the Assistant Gardener. Aside from the obvious opportunity to contribute to the environmental beauty of the school campus (and to do something completely removed from my normal work!), it would provide a unique perspective on the school from the ground up (pun intended!).

Steve >  The role of a middle leader. These leaders are the backbone of the school while also being the proverbial “meat in the sandwich”. I would love to learn more about their roles and responsibilities to understand what support they need.

What does 'success' mean to you in terms of your work as a board member?

Fiona > A forward-facing mindset with a knowledge of the past, a team of engaging board members who enjoy the challenges faced and are able to come together in the best interest of the school.

Geoff > Having contributed to policy development and stayed clear of operational matters. Having contributed to the development and implementation of a sensible and ambitious strategic plan for the school. Empowering the principal to lead the school in an effective and productive manner. Ensuring that the school stays true to its vision and mission. Building and sustaining a culture of care, concern and collaboration. Helping to develop and promote the leadership capacity of staff.

Simon > “Success” is a constantly changing concept, with dynamic metrics, and evolving definition. In many ways, success over the last two years has been effectively supporting community cohesion and strength without losing momentum in learning, whilst also sustaining positive connections for the student body.

Steve > Positive and progressive growth in all key performance areas of the school.

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