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Can we improve our school governance?

Cathy Wylie

A review of school self-management across several research surveys and sources of data leads Cathy Wylie to recommend five measures to help support school boards of trustees.  

See also her full report: School governance in New Zealand—how is it working?

Journal issue: 

Can we improve our school governance?

Cathy Wylie

We’ve had school self-management for 17 years: long enough to take it for granted—and to see what the persistent issues are with it. Overseas visitors often quiz me about the fact that every school has its own governing board: many find it hard to believe that our boards of trustees have the responsibilities they have, particularly since most trustees are parents who are not educational professionals. They also find it hard to believe the degree of autonomy our schools have—or, to put it another way, the lack of connection between schools and government agencies.

In these conversations, I sometimes find myself feeling patriotic: Yes, it’s possible, and we’ ve done it, another example of the Number 8 wire tradition! But every system has its drawbacks. From New Zealand Council for Educational Research’s (NZCER) periodic national surveys since 1989, there’s a pretty consistent range of 10–15 percent of schools at any one time where boards seem to be floundering, or where people are having difficulties in their roles and relationships. A similar picture comes from the 2005 principal Hauora study analysed by NZCER, when board competence or involvement in school management was a source of high or breaking-point stress for 11–13 percent of principals.

Recently I put together information from other national sources on how boards were coping with their responsibilities and tried to estimate how many would be the source of parental complaints to the Education Review Office (ERO), of calls for help from the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Children, or the Youth Law Centre, or cases where the Ministry of Education had provided support under the “intervention” responsibility it was given in 2000. All in all, these show that very few boards become completely dysfunctional. But there were persistent trends: around 15 percent of schools would seem to be at risk in terms of the overall health of the school and its management of resources; and somewhere between 6 to 12 percent of schools were not able to resolve issues raised by parents to the parents’ satisfaction (or acceptance). Many of the latter include some of the hardest issues for school boards and management: suspensions, stand-downs; expulsions; zoning; and provision for students with special needs.

From a distance, all this could amount to a shrugged shoulder: not perfect, but probably a realistic—to be expected—level of difficulty for any school system. Our system could be said to work, reasonably well.

But there is also other information, not so well captured in quantitative terms that, when added to the quantitative estimates and to other information on the issues and challenges for New Zealand education, gave me pause. Keren Brooking’s study of board decision making around principal appointments (2005) showed that boards can prioritise fit with the local community over educational leadership, and ignore the educational expertise that they have invited in to advise them. This is consistent with anecdotal evidence from people who have served as such advisers. Viviane Robinson, Lorrae Ward, and Helen Timperley’s (2003) two small-scale studies with board chairs in a low-income area showed that they struggled with educational-related governance tasks because they did not have the understanding they needed to ask useful questions of the professionals. That was consistent with anecdotal evidence from people who had worked with boards in training roles.

And I was hearing too many stories of the misery and distraction for individuals caught in these situations of school strife or lack of capability, of good people quitting education, of boards making decisions on principal appointments that were doomed to end in mutual disappointment or worse, and of insular schools that needed to change, but would not listen to anyone outside the school. I started to put these persistent and nagging difficulties—that could occur in any school type—with some of the other persistent and frustrating patterns we have seen with our system of school self-management: the size of principal and teacher workloads, and the difficulty principals and others have in trying to focus on educational leadership while responding to the management and administration calls that take up so much of school leaders’ (and boards’) time.

We ask a lot of our principals now. Yet boards cannot appoint good principals if we do not have a good pool of people willing to take on the role. It was sobering that around 20 percent of the trustees in NZCER’s 2006 National Secondary Survey whose boards had made recent appointments thought they had a patchy or disappointing quality of applicants on their shortlist. It’s also concerning that 17 percent of primary schools and 4 percent of secondary schools have had four or more principals in the last decade: too high a turnover rate to sustain good school development and high-trust school cultures.

There is a high demand for schools to focus on student engagement in learning and on increasing student achievement levels. If all schools are going to be able to do this as well as we—and they—wish, then we have to rethink some of the conditions we ask schools to operate within.

I think we have asked too much of boards of trustees. But I do not think we should ditch this unique model. Boards can add value through their challenge and support of school professionals, by embodying the values that are important in a school, and by linking parents and professionals, the world beyond school, and the focus within it. It is not just their capacity to raise money that matters to school wellbeing. Other existing models of governance that are more distant from a school would not have these strengths, and there would be strong resistance now to doing without a governance layer and having more local Ministry of Education offices, and employing principals.

Yet we need more connectivity in the system, better ways to support schools to make good, well-informed, and ethical decisions about their provision, respecting their decisionmaking responsibility. I’ve made five suggestions here:

•&&&&Make the ask on trustees and school management more realistic by providing better administrative support in schools, quick access to needed expertise, more fieldtesting of new policies, including the test for any policy change that it should only increase school workloads if it will help schools improve their capability in relation to student learning.

•&&&&Include educational professional expertise in principal appointments and appraisals, with requirements for boards to work with this expertise. I’ve suggested that, given the wariness of “bureaucracy”, such expertise is made available through accredited local teams contracted by the Ministry of Education.

•&&&&Develop some strong practical sessions to present information, issues, and strategies for school groups of staff and trustees around student performance data in relation to strategic planning and the board role in monitoring school performance and allocation of resources.

•&&&&Allow boards to focus in their contact with parents on how parents can support children’s learning, and the school’s goals and programmes, rather than feeling that they should try anything and talk about everything in their efforts to reach parents.

•&&&&Provide a timely local educational disputes resolution process for parents and students.


Brooking, K. (2005). Boards of trustees’ selection of primary school principals in New Zealand. Delta, 57(1 & 2), 117–140.

Robinson, V., Ward, L., & Timperley, H. (2003). The difficulties of school governance: A layperson’s job? Educational Management and Administration, 31(3), 263–281.


Cathy Wylie’s full paper School governance in New Zealandhow is it working? is available at

Cathy Wylic is chief researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.