For over 30 years I have pondered the question, “Why do we have school boards?”. Apart from it being a legal requirement, I have never really come to an answer that satisfies me. Several incidents in independent and Christian schools over the last year or two have highlighted difficulties that can arise when boards are “not doing their job” – but what is their job? I would be surprised if there are any Heads in independent schools who have not asked this question many times in their careers. I am sure that Board Members also ask this, at least when they are first appointed.
Schools can exist for many years – over a hundred in Australia, 600 in England, and a millennium in some universities. The tenure of a Head is much more limited – say 2 – 40, with 5 year contracts being the norm. A study in Western Australia several years ago showed that in one particular sector, the average tenure of a Head was 3 years. Although its members will frequently change, the Board, as an institution, exists for the life of the school.
Herein lies the answer to the question.
Most independent schools are established for a purpose flowing from the ethos of the founder or founders. While this purpose may be stated in definite terms in the Vision Statement or Constitution, rarely do these explain the underlying ethos because this is often difficult to put into words. However, if you look at the school after several years of operation under the founder, you can often get an idea of the philosophy. It comes out in the way things are done, not just the big things such as buildings, but the small things and the language, the priorities, the way the people of the school are treated.
The school philosophy and values are in the walk not just the talk. Is it an institution, as described by Habermas – bureaucratic, system before people, rules that come first, people defined by their role or place in the system, success measured by KPIs and other statistics? Is the survival and growth of the system more important than the survival, growth and health of the people (not units) in it? Do the people serve the system or does the system serve the people?
The responsibility of the board as the ongoing part of the school is to ensure the original values and philosophy are maintained over time. There are many of the old schools and universities whose founders would no longer recognise them because they have moved so far from their foundational ethos. They may be “good” schools according to some definitions of the term, but they cannot and do not serve the role for which they were established. Harvard, for example, was established to train Congregational and Unitarian ministers, but has become more secularised over the centuries.
I maintain that the role of the board is to stand guard to ensure the school stays faithful to its original founding values, to guard the ethos, and to measure the school’s success against its foundational culture, not by modern statistical metrics. This is not to say that the school should not progress, but any modernisation should be in line with its original values, enhancing rather than undermining them.
In order to effectively carry out this solemn duty, the board members must immerse themselves and new members in the original culture and its nuances. The pressure for change is subtle and often occurs first in language. They must regularly examine the actions and activities and examine them against the original culture – not last year’s or the year before, but back to the beginning. This takes work, but is a better use of time than many of the activities of boards. The Head should also be doing this type of in-depth examination, rather than being caught up in the tyranny of administrivia.
Many independent Christian schools were begun with the view that this was a “work of God”. If that was the view, then it gives greater importance to the board’s role to guard that original work.
Founder and Headmaster (1988-2013)