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International School Governance: Behind the Anecdotes

By Leila Holmyard
International School Governance: Behind the Anecdotes

Perhaps no area of international education produces so many eyebrow-raising stories as that of governance. We can all visualize the caricature of the mercenary, unscrupulous school owner exploiting overburdened teachers, or that of the parent governor running roughshod over the rules and regulations he or she so fastidiously scrutinized. Is the governance of international schools really as inadequate as these stereotypes lead us to believe? A glance through the international school teacher review websites would indicate yes, many international schools do appear to be run in a haphazard and even malicious way, as stories abound of unorthodox governing practices and underhanded behaviors. But what is the broader truth behind the individual narratives and anecdotes?
A 2014 study by Chris James and Paul Sheppard, published in the Journal of School Leadership and Management, consulted head teachers, school owners, and governors in order to explore the realities of international school governance. Three common models emerged and pros and cons were identified in each. Fully elected boards, usually made up of current parents, were described by one head as facilitating “a very democratic approach to decision-making” and such boards tend to reflect the diversity of the school community.
Having only current parents on the board, however, can lead to a crisis-driven approach to governance, lacking in long-term strategic planning. Furthermore, the transient nature of the international school community means that parent boards often have a higher turnover than is ideal.
In contrast, the self-perpetuating board, in which current governors appoint their successors, was described as providing “continuity, stability, and institutional memory” to school leadership, but it was noted that if the wrong members self-perpetuate, cliques can form. The study found that privately-owned schools in particular tend to have fully self-perpetuating boards. For these schools, the boards generally reflect their proprietorship, comprising, for example, the owner and their employees or family members. Although head teachers were frequently excluded from the board in this scenario, in some cases they were found to enjoy considerable autonomy regarding educational matters: owners preferred to fully delegate educational responsibility to the heads while maintaining control of financial matters.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, for-profit privately owned schools came under the most criticism with only 56 percent of head teacher respondents working in such schools reporting a positive view of their governance. They complained of micromanagement by the owner and poor decision making on the part of the board due to a lack of educational expertise. The exclusion of other stakeholders was also a frequent issue raised.
The third approach highlighted by the research is a hybrid of the two models. Some boards were found to be partly elected and partly self-perpetuating, and in other cases board members put forward nominations for their successors, who were then voted on by the school community. A hybrid model appears to overcome many of the issues previously described. As one head noted: “This arrangement allows for democratic participation but prevents takeovers by agenda-wielding parents.” The wide diversity of international schools and cultural contexts makes it difficult to make generalizations about the most appropriate approach to governance. Nevertheless, the issues raised in the study indicate there is an inconsistency in the standard of school governance across the international school community.
This disparity may be due in part to the dearth of guidance that focuses specifically on governance in an international school context, and the lack of training available for governors. Into this gap has entered the Principal Training Center (PTC), a not-for-profit organization which is dedicated to creating practical training opportunities for international educators. From January 2017, the PTC will offer a Governor Training Centre (GTC), a series of two-day modules leading to a Certificate of International School Governance. As PTC Director Bambi Betts explains, “Effective, efficient, and exceptional governance is vital to the mission of every school, yet our international school community has yet to systematically take up the challenge and ensure our students have the very best, most up-to-date trustees and owners protecting and invigorating the future of the school.” The training will be held at multiple sites worldwide and aims to support new and existing governors of international schools by providing them with development and networking opportunities.
So, do the stereotypes match up to reality? It would seem from the findings of James and Sheppard that, generally, head teachers support the governing arrangements of their school. This allays any fears that the international school community as a whole is suffering at the hands of incompetent governance, but the study does highlight issues that can arise in the different governance models, as well as the need for more guidance and support for governors in the international school setting. As the PTC has over 270 member schools in 74 different countries, it will be interesting to see over time how the GTC changes the face of international school governance. Perhaps the stereotype of the unscrupulous governor will eventually be eradicated from international schools?
Leila is an educational consultant and freelance education writer based in Frankfurt, Germany.
[email protected]

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