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School information in an age of transparency

I am often asked by board chairs how their school compares to other schools. It is difficult to compare schools. Each independent school is different with its unique history, philosophy and aims and school-to-school comparisons should be done with much caution. However, “benchmarking” your school against other like schools can be useful in considering its performance and outcomes. 

For over a decade, there has been a clear agenda to publicly provide much more data on schools.

This push is driven by the belief that transparency is a key driver of school improvement. As a result, there is a great range of publicly available information on schools that might be of interest to boards.

MySchool

The most well-known platform is MySchool which publishes data on enrolments, staffing numbers and finances are published for each individual school in Australia. MySchool is most recognised for publishing schools' NAPLAN outcomes, including student progress that enables comparison of a school’s NAPLAN outcomes with “like-schools” based on the socio-economic background of students. Although the MySchool method of identifying “like-schools” is contentious, it does provide a starting point given that family background is recognised as a key factor in student outcomes.

QCAA Annual Report

Up to 2020, the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority provided an annual report on Year 12 outcomes for each school which was useful for looking at senior secondary outcomes. In the move to a new senior schooling and tertiary entrance system that replaced OPs with ATARs, the Outcomes Report was discontinued with only state-level Year 12 summary data being released.

Next Step

Less well known is the Queensland Next Step survey which tracks the destinations of students in the year after Year 12. There are sector and state reports publicly available. Each school is provided with an individual school report.

The individual school Next Step data is published by the school as part of the required Annual Report. This Annual Report contains a wealth of information including data on staffing such as qualifications, retention rates and expenditure on professional development.

A school’s Annual Report can be found on each school’s website and often will contain contextual information about programs, philosophies, and strategic directions. Individual school websites also often contain detailed information on curriculum provision, fee levels and organisational structures as well as history and strategic directions.

ACNC

Independent schools are charities, so the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website also has a range of corporate information on a school including the school’s governing documents and financial reports.

Other sources

  • There are also several commercially available benchmarking systems across a range of data metrics available to schools. The most well-known is the Somerset Education Financial Benchmarking Survey with most independent schools participating in this long-term study. Another source of information is the IBISWorld “Private Schools in Australia Market Research Report”.
  • There are also other benchmarking surveys provided commercially across a range of school activities. Check with your school as to whether they participate in any projects or surveys looking at school data and outcomes.
  • Finally, for board chairs, there is perhaps no better substitute than to engage with other board chairs. Whilst the independent sector is based on a market and there is often strong competition between schools, most are willing to share information in the knowledge that it will be used wisely and for the benefit of students and a strong independent sector.

If the information you might be looking for is not available publicly or through engagement with other schools, Independent Schools Queensland may be able to assist.

David Robertson, Executive Director
Independent Schools Queensland

Royal Commission Recommendations: Lessons for School Boards

The final report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was released this year, providing 148 recommendations to the Federal Government. It identifies systemic weaknesses of the aged care sector, some of which relate directly to the governance arrangements of aged care providers. We examine three broad themes and their application to independent school governance.

Organisational culture

A positive culture is a key factor in an organisation’s ability to meet its objectives. The report found that a lack of oversight by aged care boards on poor workplace culture contributed to instances of substandard care. It acknowledges that culture starts from the top with a genuine commitment to the values and philosophies that contribute to quality care. Strategies, policies, practices and behaviours provide the underpinning framework to enact and shape this culture.

For independent school boards, a continuous emphasis on leading and monitoring organisational culture has come to be expected. Boards should consider how they can ensure that the lived culture within their organisation supports the provision of high-quality education services. The insights and indicators required to fulfil this task come from a variety of sources, such as written and verbal reports, surveys, site visits, and independent reviews.

Quality of operations

The Royal Commission found that a failure to attract, develop and retain well-skilled staff has contributed to shortfalls in the quality and safety of services. Exacerbating factors were found to be a lack of aged-care expertise on boards. The report recommended that all health care boards implement a care governance committee that monitors and ensures accountability for the quality of care delivered. Further, it recommended that feedback mechanisms, including complaints processes, should be mandated to ensure boards improve their understanding of the quality and safety of the day-to-day practices in their services.

The extent to which boards of independent schools can attest to the quality of educational services being delivered in their organisations is dependent on similar issues. Boards need to determine if their workforce strategies are effective in creating and sustaining a highly capable teaching staff. They should also consider whether the industry expertise available to the board is conducive to effectively overseeing an educational institution. Finally, they should review whether their feedback mechanisms about operations quality are providing the insights they require to direct the school’s educational excellence.

Board independence

The Royal Commission found that a lack of independent board members contributing impartial judgments led to decision-making that was not in the best interest of some aged care organisations. Providers that are wholly owned subsidiaries of other entities were specifically pointed out. The Royal Commission stressed that boards need to be free from any interests, even if they are only perceived, that may exert influence over them. The report recommended that boards be comprised of a majority of independent directors.

The issue of independence is equally applicable to school governance. Schools are subject to legislation that prohibits arrangements in which third parties can reasonably be perceived to influence the financial decision-making of the school’s governing body. 

It is in the best interest of students not to have corporate interests influence decisions that impact the provision of quality education.

The challenge that school boards need to accept is to ensure that their oversight is truly independent of third parties and free of conflicts of interest while remaining true to their core purpose.

The government’s initial response to the final report included a commitment to fund a governance training program for 3,700 senior executives and board members in the aged care sector. This underscores the importance of ongoing governance training to support directors in the above matters. ISQ offers industry-specific governance training to independent school boards. To learn more about the ISQ School Governance Course, visit the ISQ website.

A culture free from sexual harassment: The role of the board

Recent media headlines about cases of sexual harassment and alleged assaults in Parliament House and corporate entities have shone the spotlight on the safety of workplaces for employees. The national attention has demonstrated that sexual harassment is both an urgent societal issue and a pervasive workplace hazard known to cause devastating psychological and physical harm.

The National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 33 per cent of survey respondents who had been in the workforce in the previous five years had experienced workplace sexual harassment. Women (39%) were more likely than men (26%) to have experienced workplace sexual harassment in this period. Only 17% of victims reported the conduct.

According to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld), officers (including directors) must ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers.

Acts of sexual harassment create a work environment contrary to this obligation. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) institutes vicarious liability to employers for sexual harassment committed by staff members.

A contemporary understanding of the issue highlights the crucial role that organisational culture plays in creating safe and harassment-free workplaces. Culture promotes behavioural patterns that are commonly accepted. One of the clear governance expectations that emerged from the Banking Royal Commission is that boards in all industries should be actively engaged in setting and monitoring their organisation's culture. The Commission’s final report recommended that boards should assess their organisation’s culture as often as reasonably possible to identify and deal with issues effectively.

Boards have no easy task in shaping and monitoring culture. The following questions can help boards review their approach:

  • Does our Code of Conduct and other relevant policies clearly state that the school deplores all forms of harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment, and will act on breaches?
  • What is the evidence that our staff know how to report and respond to sexual harassment (e.g. training summaries, staff consultations)?
  • Is a critical review of school culture a regular feature at board and relevant committee meetings?
  • How can we ensure our view of the school’s culture is informed by regular interactions with staff across the organisation and not just by the principal?
  • Which non-financial metrics could we track to illuminate culture? Examples could include:
    • responses to questions such as, “How comfortable are you to speak up about issues that concern you?” posed in regular staff surveys
    • number and types of formal and informal complaints as recorded in the complaints register
    • number and reasons for staff departures as identified in exit interviews
    • number and types of workers’ compensation claims.

Above all, boards are expected to model positive behaviour standards in all their professional and personal interactions and critically examine whether the principal’s “tone from the top” is commensurate with the desired culture.

All schools aim to provide a positive, respectful and productive learning environment for their students. Achieving this goal requires staff members who feel safe within a respectful and harassment-free workplace. Boards that continually review their approach to shaping a positive culture can maximise their impact on the learning environment to the benefit of all.

Recommended further reading: Managing Culture: A Good Practice Guide.

Board Chair Interview

Steve Laughton

Chair Moreton Bay Birali Steiner School Association Inc.
On the board since June 2020 | Chair since September 2020

What excites you about your school?

Birali Steiner School is a relatively young school, having opened its doors in 2013. It is exciting to participate in the growth of the school. There is a need for more Steiner schools in Australia to meet increased demand by parents, and I am excited that we are providing this kind of education in the Moreton Bay and Caboolture area.

What prompted you to become a board member?

I was first approached by the then principal to join the board. He knew I had previous school governance experience as well as leadership experience of another Steiner school. I thought that I could add value to the school and saw this as an opportunity to give back to an important cause within the community.

How would you describe an effective board?

An effective board is made up of directors with a cross-section of skills relevant to the school at a particular time in its development. Its directors are on the board because they are willing to serve and put in the effort required to fulfil their duties. I also believe that an effective board should adopt a continuous improvement philosophy to increase its own standards and keep current. This sets a culture of continuous improvement from the top, starting with the leadership team. Finally, I think an effective school board keeps the school’s educational philosophy and the students at the heart of its decision-making process.

What is your advice for new school board members?

It’s very rewarding to serve on a school board and schools are in need of skilled directors. The first step for new board members is to understand their obligations as a director. They need to step into the role with their eyes wide open. They need to be carefully reading all board papers and adopt an inquisitive mindset until they are satisfied that they have an accurate picture of the school. This mindset ensures they maintain an appropriate level of engagement with their role and helps them make informed decisions.

Which topics and issues should be on school board agendas in 2021?

I see succession planning for both board directors and senior leaders as particularly important given the challenges of recruiting for these positions. Another issue is to constantly review how we can build a continuous improvement philosophy into the culture of the board. Boards should also be able to clearly articulate their appetite for risk. Finally, the topic of innovation in education should be on board agendas – they should stay abreast of trends and developments in the education sector.

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