The composition of school boards has always fascinated me, and positions on them are often highly sought after.
But unfortunate events at a number of private schools over the past few years has thrown a very public spotlight on a number of boards, their composition and suitability to successfully oversee an education institution.
Dealing with very delicate matters involving child safety and allegations of sexual abuse must be a minefield for any board and there are often many demanding and diverse stakeholders involved in private schools.
A school board needs legal and financial experts.Credit:Michael Clayton-Jones
Boards are essentially responsible for governance, strategic direction and fulfilling an organisation’s mission. They need a balance of people with a variety of skill sets. Schools are “not for profit” organisations whose core business is the provision of education. They are answerable to a number of government bodies and a large number of other stakeholders ranging from current parents to local residents.
A glance at a sample of school boards reveals that there is generally an under-representation of education specialists, generally at the expense of financiers, wealth managers or lawyers. How many of what is known as the “big four’”accounting firm partners does a school board need? Similarly, how many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? Doctors, while they do valuable and noble work, are also over-represented and I am not sure what skills they have at the expense of education experts.
If you are going to have an imbalance of skills and backgrounds on a school board, surely it makes more sense to have more, not fewer, education experts.
Why does an eight-person board need four accountants/money managers or multiple lawyers and doctors? Strategic decisions for a school could involve decisions such as a new campus, new buildings, moving to a co-educational model, changing the curriculum being taught (for example, the introduction of the International Baccalaureate) and many similar issues.
Regent Consulting director Paul O’Shannassy Credit:Eddie Jim
It is pleasing to see some boards are heading in the direction of having more education experts involved, for example Trinity Grammar which recently appointed a retired private school principal as its chair. Many others now have a token education person on their school council but not many have multiple experts in their core business on their boards.
One only has to look at the AFL to see boards such as Carlton and Richmond who have several former footballers as board members – people who thoroughly understand the core business.
Most schools have various sub-committees such as audit and risk, finance and building, that report directly to the board and these committees usually have the school CFO as part of them. The experts on the committees don’t have to be board members.
A board needs legal and financial experts. It’s hoped the recent spate of unfortunate incidents that have plagued private schools will prompt introspection, including on the composition of their boards.
Paul O’Shannassy is founder and director of Regent Consulting.
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