Great School Board members – intentional or happenstance?

Finding people to join the school board is challenging; and to get the right or the best people even more so.   No board will ever achieve the perfect membership – it is a balancing act: an art rather than a recipe. But even in the most constraining of circumstances, school board membership should be a strategic outcome – planned, discussed, deliberately enacted, intentional and grounded in principle. What characteristics, experience and ability do we need to gather together to achieve the board’s purpose?

Answering this comes down to two words: Principles and Process. In my experience, boards don’t spend nearly enough time in thinking about the Principles before dealing with the Process. It’s often said that the governors’ most important task is the appointment of the Principal. Certainly it is a decision with significant consequences……but board membership is every bit as important, and sadly this becomes apparent when governance goes wrong or gets into difficulties.

And just to underline the importance of this challenge, consider for a moment the frequency with which membership and succession decisions occur. Assume, for the sake of this discussion, that the board has 12 members and those members each serve an average of 6 years. My maths says that means a turnover of two members every year. So the board needs to spend quality time in thinking through and agreeing the Principles through which board membership will be shaped because this is a regular and frequent undertaking.

So, most boards start by creating a skills matrix – definitely helpful, essential even and certainly better than nothing. The conversation might be “we need a lawyer because we don’t have one”. Yes, yes, but why? What is the board trying to achieve? What is its purpose?

Here are five strategic questions that lead to principles and therefore I hope you think worth your board or council considering:

Ethos and culture of the school – how is this cherished and maintained?

  • If the preservation of ethos and culture is a 10 out of 10 principle, then the priority for board membership will be to appoint “people like us”. This will give rise to members who are past pupils, parents, who share the board’s faith, ethnicity and gender. Taken to extremes, this board will be noticeably (and perhaps dangerously) heterogeneous which makes it much more difficult for the board to challenge itself and may lead to the school being stuck in the past.

Our future – where is the school in its organisational life cycle: growing and developing, more of the same, or steady decline?

  • Where is the forward momentum coming from and at what pace? Is the board acting as “horizon spotter”? If the strategic development of the school is a top priority principle, then board membership needs enough people who are capable of standing apart – the “grit in the oyster” – the people who challenge and question, albeit always in a supportive way, and always strategically. Every board needs enough people who are skilful in this way. Without enough grit the board will become soggy, complacent and backwards looking.

Risk – with the right priorities but not stifling: what is the board’s attitude to reasoned risk?

  • The board is charged with assessing and managing risk on behalf of school but not just through the compliance requirements. The management of risk – just enough but not too much – needs to be balanced so as not to constrain the creativity and momentum of the school except where questions of safety are concerned. So the board needs people who are wise and considered in their assessment of risk, who have a great nose for danger but have the ability to see beyond the checklist. Finding the right balance of risk needs board members who have “wisdom and judgment” and who can get beneath the surface to weigh up the information in front of them.

Does business trump education?

  • This question suggests a dichotomy where there is none: a school is a business – it employs people, it needs well-managed finances, it trades (including government schools) and it needs to deliver its stated aims. But looking at the membership of many, perhaps most, school boards, you would have to conclude that business trumps education. In my opinion school boards that are dominated by accountants, lawyers and businessmen are in danger of occupying the wrong space. Board membership needs to be balanced to include people who are “thoughtful and knowledgeable about education and people”, particularly children and young people. Would half the membership bringing educational and people experience be too much?

Collective responsibility – the board as a team

  • The board has collective responsibility for its decisions. It acts as a whole. So, it is crucial that the board is a well functioning team – it needs to pay attention to itself as a team, reflect on the characteristics of effective team working and regularly review how well it’s doing. But, above all, it needs to appoint new people who are “outstanding team members”.

Returning to the importance of Principles then. Choosing the right people to join the school board is challenging and finding the best people even more so.   There is no perfect answer but by thinking strategically with intention boards can come closer to achieving a balanced board that works in the interests of the school.

A good starting point might be to take each of the five questions above and as a collective exercise (requiring frankness and honesty!) apply the analysis to your existing board membership – an “attribute matrix” rather than a traditional skills matrix. Such an exercise will enable the board to better know itself, provide an element of review and, when done thoughtfully, will definitely provide strategic direction for future school board membership decisions.