Improving School Governance

Governance at schools is about calling the leadership to account, supporting them with skills and resources and helping them chart a path of continuous improvement for the school

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Jan 30, 2014 02:44:31 PM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at


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The school principal looked at us across the grand table and asked, “Under the circumstances, what should the school policy be?”

This was the purpose of this gathering -- not only to hold the school and its head teacher to account for the past quarter, but also to build and enhance the school’s policies so that there was a consistent and value-based response in school. As a member of the school management committee here, and previously as a school governor, I knew this was going to be the most intensely debated part of the meeting.

Formulating policies that helped the school to devise daily routines and processes was not just about right and wrong, or about opinions. It called on the shared values of the school and its guardians, and needed to translate into practical and consistently applicable procedures.

Those were not the only demands of school governance. Governance in schools is about calling the leadership to account, supporting them with skills and resources and helping them chart a path of continuous improvement for the school. This is not dissimilar to the role of the board in corporate entities. The board is the guardian of the core values and drives the interests of the true owners of the enterprise. The moral responsibility of the institution is vested here -- governance -- is about watchful guardianship.

Much of the responsibility of governance rests on the school leader. I would go as far as to suggest that the school leader is at the front line of governance, dealing with daily issues and sniper attacks. The head of the educational institution is the most visible embodiment of all that must be right with an institution -- and is the enforcer as well. Most good governance is done without harsh enforcement. Or as the Art of War says,  ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’ - just so, good governance is alignment of behaviours (ideally) without having to be led by rules, policing or punishments.

Having said that, these rules and the consequences of not following them are an essential part of the toolkit of governance. As are other gentler means including monitoring, feedback loops and constructive observation and mentoring. Governance is the duty of care and it is operationalised by watching out for aberrations, managing these aberrations and then scaffolding the system back to normal growth.

Who should, then, be included in this community of care? Those who govern must not only be able to be the conscience-keepers of the school, but must be able to influence it on a daily basis. Most governors and school managers do not get much time to actually interact with a school -- they are not employees of the school. They cannot be paid by the school, for that would be a conflict of interest.

With limited access comes the limitation of information -- the flows of information to the governing level comes only via the school management. Other channels too are opened up via the agency of the management. School management (and governing) committees meet for a few hours each year. Under these constraints, it becomes very difficult to create any impact. And yet, it is these individuals who support the school leadership towards school improvements. Their role is probably the trickiest of all in the entire school network. They are charged with being the ‘critical friend’ of the school. To exert influence without authority, and thence to drive change for good, is the role of governance in the school context.

It takes exceptional people to be able to achieve this, and now, in India, all schools must have a school management community. The record of school management committees has been mixed so far, with slow but steady progress.

The challenge, as with much of school leadership, is to find the right people to be able to create this community of critical friends that can hold the school accountable for the welfare of the students. In small local communities the fear is that this will become politicised, if the school management committee merely becomes a local arena for power play, then its core purpose of school improvement may take a back seat.

On the other hand lies the challenge of finding the right people to influence positive change in the schools. The quest is for exceptional individuals who can be honest guides to school excellence. This is not a community that can be built merely by regulation, though that is a good step.

Of all the recommended participants in the School Management Committee, it is only the parent representatives whose interests are wholly aligned with the students. Some must represent different interests such as the owners (including the public/government), and the model rules include these. But the range of competence required by an SMC spans budgets, recruitment, human resource management, student psychology and much more. Unless governors and SMCs themselves receive support and training, they will also be unable to discharge their duties adequately. \

Currently in India, there is little organised, or even standardised support for SMCs. It is not enough to decree community participation in schools; these must be facilitated by resources, support and education lest its progress be wayward -- and worse -- too slow for any real timely impact.

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