Good governance during challenging times
Matthew Savage and Dr. Helen Wright explore the ingredients of effective school governance, and how to help schools grow #betterboards.
Synergy and symbiosis
If headship has proven especially challenging amid the pressures of the pandemic, the same is certainly true for school governance. As any Headteacher will know, the sustenance of a synergistic and symbiotic relationship with their Board has always been a sine qua non of successful schools. However, with strategic decisions of unprecedented complexity demanded daily in this strangest of years, never has that relationship been more tested and needed than now.
The schools which have managed to flourish this year have done so through determined and consistent alignment – of policy and practice; of strategic vision and operational reality; and of leadership and governance. With international school Heads under more pressure than ever before, it is those who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with an effective Board who were most likely to have arrived at the 2020 finishing line with their physical and emotional wellbeing still intact.
And yet international school boards cannot expect to be able to rise to this challenge simply by virtue of appointment, and we do them a disservice to require them to do so. School governance, perhaps more so than in most industries, is as simultaneously specialist and generalist as is school leadership, and yet we insist that our school leaders have decades of training and experience behind them. School governors deserve equal attention, and it is high time, therefore, that we afford our Boards the opportunity to thrive within their role and, in so doing, to help their schools thrive too.
Features of a good board
So, what are some of the features of a successful school Board, and how can Board members seek to maximise their effectiveness? As international schools, we are justifiably committed to, and proud of, our diversity and inclusion, and it is important that our Boards share this pride and commitment, today more than ever, and model it too. We also recognise that no student can learn, and no teacher can teach, unless their wellbeing is strong and secure. The best boards recognise this too, keeping a spotlight on student and staff wellbeing at all times, and, crucially, on the wellbeing of their Head.
School governance, like school leadership, can be a foggy place, and Boards, like Heads, sometimes need something bigger and brighter to light their way. Accredited international schools will have co-created a set of shared Guiding Statements, and these can be remarkably effective in shaping and arbitrating strategic direction. Similarly, many a difficult decision can become so much simpler if we approach it through the lens of our school’s values; ethical governance, like ethical leadership, rarely gets things wrong. In other words, when we feel stuck, why not look to the the lighthouse of our Guiding Statements and our core values, to tell us what to do?
Every year, a number of schools fall foul of individual agendas and petty politics, including in leadership and governance, which threaten to deflect their trajectory from what matters most. In a swirling solar system of multiple leadership orbits, it is easy for them to collide, or, worse still, to revolve around false stars. How many times have you seen international schools take precipitous and, sometimes, calamitous decisions, because they had lost sight of what the school is all about? The best boards are there to prevent this happening; to be guardians of the school’s DNA; and, like a parent, to keep the school safe whilst enabling it to grow ever stronger.
Survive, then thrive
The international schools sector survived 2020, and now we need to thrive again. This will only be possible if governance and leadership work together towards the same goal, our path illuminated by the same guiding lights. Being a Board member in an international school is more challenging, but also more important, then ever before, and the more we recognise this, the better and stronger we will become. Let’s make 2021 the year of #betterboards, and of governance with a heart.
#betterboards, LSC Education’s new, online course for board members in accredited international schools worldwide, is currently enrolling its second global cohort, to begin in May 2021. To find out more about this one-of-a-kind training opportunity for your board members, please visit bit.ly/lscbetterboards
Matthew is an experienced international school Principal, sought-after consultant and trainer, working with premium schools worldwide. He is also an Associate Consultant with LSC Education
Helen is also an experienced school Principal, and currently works as a coach and Associate Consultant with LSC Education. An expert in diversity and inclusion, she is also either chair or member of a number of highly successful Boards herself.