Twenty five years ago New Zealand faced a crisis of school system accountability. Then Prime Minister David Lange responded by introducing a “self-managed schools” system that turned the whole education world upside down. With that sweeping education reform, New Zealand became the test case for employing school-based governing boards to re-engineer the public school system.
The Tomorrow’s Schools reform plan of 1989 implemented nation-wide “self-governing schools,” eliminated school district bureaucracy, and delegated much of the responsibility to elected school council governing boards. Most decisions affecting students and teachers would be made at the school-level and closer to the point of implementation. It was particularly aimed at providing more flexibility to accommodate Maori schools and improve the educational opportunities for Aboriginal children.
Lange’s government went even farther than the Edmonton Public Schools in utilizing the model to reduce education bureaucracy and to create greater cost efficiencies. Seeking to improve system responsiveness, organizational flexibility, and public accountability, New Zealand’s model also held out the promise of more immediate delivery of services and resources, more parental and community involvement, and greater teacher responsibility for managing local schools.
Today New Zealand has a well-established “self-governing schools” system. Successive educational reviews, mostly conducted by Cathy Wylie of the NZ Council for Educational Research, have sustained the experiment and addressed a few early phase shortcomings, including the high turn over of the initial cohort of school-appointed principals. Current Education Minister Hekia Parata is again reviewing the education system, assessing its effectiveness, and looking at making a few reforms.
Many Canadian provinces are saddled with a school board governing system that is floundering with expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Back in 2013, a Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Memorial University’s Gerald Galway and a respected research team, issued a stiff warning that elected boards were in serious jeopardy. Elected school boards were no longer perceived to be the “voice of the people,” feeding the growing public concern that boards had lost their “raison d’être.”
The only real policy options presented in a subsequent Journal of Canadian Education Administration and Policy article (September 2013) were crystal clear: “quiet acquiescence to centralization” or “take action to save the sinking ship.” Rather sadly, the warning and the call to action went largely ignored, particularly in the Maritime provinces.
The CSBA research report identified the crux of the problem facing elected school trustees. For elected school board members to be credible, they must be perceived to be “accountable and committed to their mandate and their electorate; ensure a level of openness and transparency…; demonstrate a responsiveness (ensuring) that decisions are made within reasonable timeframes…; make the best use of their resources; (and) work to mediate different interests for the best outcome.” By adopting the corporate designation “board member” and adhering strictly to a “policy making role,” they had become distant from parents and communities and, in far too many boards, were suffering from a loss of democratic legitimacy.
School councils, proposed in Nova Scotia Premier Dr. John Savage’s 1995-96 Education Horizons reform plan, may well have filled the void in strengthening school-community relations. In their initial form, they were “school governing councils” designed as the centrepiece of a New Zealand-like “school-based management model.”
The original conception of school governing councils was rejected by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and many of its NSTU-member principals, one of the principal victims of the 1995-96 NSTU campaign against Savage’s Education Restructuring plan. While school councils were sanctioned in the Education Act reform, they were reduced to “advisory bodies” with no power to appoint principals, manage the school budget, or pass binding resolutions contrary to school or board policy.
Today the SACs still limp along in Nova Scotia with mostly a handful of ‘hand-picked’ members functioning as little more than a sounding board for local principals. Elected board members are not only barred from membership in their local SAC, but actively discouraged from attending unless invited by the principal. A survey of the October 2011 School Advisory Council Handbook reveals that SACs “exist in most schools” but not all. With only six members, the principal and staff representatives hold half the SAC seats, and motions require 2/3 majorities, so none ever pass without teacher support. Any such school reform activity is strictly limited because the Handbook recommends “all decisions be made by consensus or be deferred until the next meeting.”
New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools may not have lived-up to its initial aims, but we know why and can address the identified shortcomings. School councils populated by elected trustees have succeeded in “bringing together school and community” and, at their best, allow local interests, including those of Indigenous peoples, to be reflected in education-policy making. The ideal size for a SGC of elected trustees is 10 to 12, double the N.S. SAC number, and a clear majority must be parents or community members, including representatives of local business employers.
Even with school-based governance, there is still a critical need for district education administration, albeit a much scaled-down version. There is also a continuing need for Regional Boards of School Trustees, possibly the elected SGC Chairs, to ensure proper linkage among and between local schools. All Regional School Trustees should be elected from, and remain ex-officio members, of the SGCs in their district.
District school administration would have to be re-purposed for their “support circle” role. All school councils, we know now, still need professional support in the appointment and appraisal of principals, the development of provincially-aligned school plans, the provision of school-by-school student performance data, and in resolving periodic school-level disputes.
School Governing Councils, like those in New Zealand, Edmonton and Quebec, have never been given a fair chance in most Canadian provincial school systems. It’s high time to seriously consider turning the whole system right-side up by focusing on building school-based education governance, redefining the role of elected school trustees, and providing improved democratic representation in all provincial public schools.
Would a school governance system based upon elected school-level trustees improve educational accountability and help to expand the number of “good schools”? What can be learned– 25 years on– from the New Zealand Tomorrow’s Schools educational reform? If educational research suggests elected board members have little impact upon student learning, how and why did it become their narrowly-defined mandate? Would community-school based governance help to spark innovation and strengthen community partnerships?