Advocacy & Media
Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

Primary School Governance

Sandra Velthuis

Sandra Velthuis, a parent and former member of the Board of Management at Rathfarnham ETNS shares her insights on the challenges and limitations faced by school boards. 

School is out.  Ireland’s primary schools have shut up shop for the summer.  Post-primary schools have been closed for a number of weeks already, entitling the nation’s teenagers to some of the longest summer holidays in Europe.

As a parent, I am straddling the final years of primary school and the early years of secondary.  I recently stepped down from the board of management of Rathfarnham Educate Together National School (RETNS), after serving as its policy officer for seven and a half years. This is in addition to five years as a member of the school’s parents’ association committee.  It has been quite a journey, luckily one with more ups than downs.  To close this chapter of my life, I thought it worthwhile to note down some of the things I learnt along the way.  Here follow, in random order and incomplete fashion, some of my reflections on the manner in which primary schools are governed, concentrating on those areas where I feel improvements need to be made.

Insufficient separation between the board and the executive

The term ‘board of management’ is a misnomer.  The role of the board ought to be to govern the school, not to manage it. Management is equated much more closely with the role of the principal.  However, the persistence of the term means that there can be an expectation on board members to become overly involved in management affairs, and often in operational matters too.  In order to truly distinguish governance and management, there ought to be a separation between those who perform either role.  However, the way school boards are structured means that the principal always holds a dual role, for s/he automatically has a seat on the board.  Another teacher, usually elected by her/his peers, takes a second place on the board. Whilst in theory this arrangement promotes inclusion and communication, it also has the potential to cause all sorts of conflict of interest and/or conflict of loyalty, especially when HR matters are being discussed. Recent cases arguably highlight that school principals can have too much unchecked power at times.

Valuing volunteers

The remaining six places on a school board are filled by volunteers: two of whom are representative of the parent body (usually one mum and one dad); two of whom are appointed by the school’s patron; and two community representatives.  Schools are therefore hugely dependent on volunteers.  2011 research by the Irish Primary Principals Network showed that there were in the region of 26,600 people working in a voluntary capacity on school boards.  Additionally, there are thousands more hands-on volunteers, usually parents or guardians, who give freely of their time and skills to raise funds, run events, help out in classrooms, accompany on trips, and so on. This raises two important issues.  Firstly, the good people at Volunteer Ireland will confirm that effective involvement of volunteers does not happen by accident: it requires an investment of commitment, time and expertise.  Whose role is it to make this happen, both at board level and at other levels?  For example, who should recruit the volunteers, induct them to their roles, thank them for their contribution, etc?  Unless this is done properly, disgruntlement and poor volunteer retention rates will be the order of the day.  Secondly, what if the skill-set needed for effective governance is simply not present amongst the board? How will that gap be filled and what are the consequences if not?

The semblance of autonomy

My biggest bugbear over the years has probably been the extent to which schools are constrained by rules that are set nationally.  On the one hand, boards are required to act as if they are leading truly independent organisations, with all the requisite freedom, decision-making powers and bureaucratic responsibilities.  On the other hand, so many decisions are completely out of their control, with Department of Education and Skills circulars, forms and other missives being issued on all manner of topics on a constant basis.  These must be complied with, even when they appear to make little sense. For example, the board acts as the employer, with all the legal responsibilities and risks that this entails. However, rather than being able to follow modern-day good employment practice, boards have to abide by the tyranny of redeployment panels.  If open recruitment is allowed to take place, only the chairperson, principal and one external person may sit on ‘selection boards’ and if the post of principal is up for grabs, these panels are limited to the chairperson and two external people, with a subsequent rubber-stamping exercise by the board and patron.  Furthermore, a decision to make an offer must be taken after one short interview.  This is crazy for what often is, literally, a job for life.

Patronage and inconsistent enrolment policies

The patronage and pluralism debate rumbles on. Much work remains to be done and I could fill countless blog posts with my strong views on this (don’t fret, I probably won’t). One hugely significant issue, which places a real and constant pressure on boards, is how the country’s varied system of patronage plays out in terms of school enrolment practice. This is a particular headache in areas where demand for places in an Educate Together school outstrips supply. It is heartbreaking to have to inform some nine out of ten parents of children on a pre-enrolment list that their infant won’t be gaining a place the coming year, and especially cruel if they already have one or more siblings in the school.  Issues such as these will remain until the underlying causes for inequitable enrolment systems are both acknowledged truthfully and dealt with robustly, as opposed to being fudged and put on the long finger time and time again.

In my mind, RETNS was very fortunate with the boards it had over recent years. On the whole, members were highly skilled and very hardworking. They were required to attend 11 two and a half hour board meetings a year and many working group and other meetings in between. They recruited teachers, generated income, drafted policies, supported the staff, communicated with parents, negotiated with suppliers, engaged with neighbours, dealt with legal issues, strategised, managed funds, and much, much more.  They displayed integrity, professionalism and tenacity both in the good times and when the going got tough. They did everything they could to make the school the special place that it is, providing a wonderful nurturing environment for the children that are fortunate enough to go there. I salute them, and all those other board members performing similar roles around the country.

Sandra's blog can be read here

Follow Sandra on Twitter @SandraVelthuis

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816