Private schools need to tackle governance issues

With the revelation that 13 years of private school education can cost upwards of $500,000, it is worth observing that a number of big independent schools are adhering to governance practices that ceased being acceptable within the commercial sector years ago.

Some leading schools in Victoria and NSW, with boarding and tuition fees exceeding $60,000, are failing to keep pace with rapid changes in governance and digital management practices, to the growing unease of paying parents. The same can be said for many non-boarding schools, where fees can exceed $30,000.

The presence of well-meaning council members or celebrity business figures on some councils does not guarantee ideal governance practices. Best placed to ensure high standards of governance are those experienced in it, and with time and passion for secondary education and its administration.

Emerging governance challenges in some private secondary schools include the following: lack of diversity – in terms of gender as well as ethnicity – on school councils; councillors not attending meetings; principals carrying out roles for which they are not trained and being permitted to remain in their posts too long; administration staff staying in roles for too long; poor information technology systems coupled with antiquated communication platforms; and little contemporary awareness of the school’s social or political operating environment.

While tenures for chief executives in business have steadily declined in Australia (to an average of 5.5 years) it is not uncommon for private school principals to remain in their relatively highly paid jobs for 15, 20 or even 25 years.

School councils that allow principals to remain for overly lengthy periods may well be laying the groundwork for complacency in their administration and, frequently, the underperformance of their school in areas that a robust business would consider critical to success and future prosperity.

In far too many cases, a weak executive team has led to council members acquiring considerably more hands-on roles for themselves, thus meddling with the basic tenets of good governance – the unambiguous separation of accountabilities between the executive, on the one hand, and the directors on the other.

In the past schools got away with management practices that had a veneer of rigour. Looking to the future, however, tighter legal and regulatory regimes, especially in areas of health and safety, strict governance practices and the entirely understandable expectations of paying parents demand a reassessment of management shortcomings at leading independent schools.

Whether the private school sector has noticed or not, disruption is here. Preparation for the new era – which is already upon us – will be central in determining which of these schools survives in this century.

John Simpson is a former council member of Melbourne’s Scotch College and is member of the Monash University council.

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