How Boards pick principals


There are seven green bottles hanging on the wall, the school board’s trustee line-up.  That’s five trustees, the principal and the staff trustee.  The school is in a challenging community, and its results are marginal.  If one green bottle should accidentally fall…


The principal resigns.  Six green bottles.


The principal’s departure is irregular, some aspects of his behaviour unethical.  He wants to exercise influence on the succession plan.  The staff representative wants to apply for the principal’s job and so now he has a conflict of interest.  Five green bottles.


The board chair’s efforts to manage complicated human resources problems facing the board exhaust him.  He withdraws, becomes uncontactable, and then resigns.


Four bottles, newly elected, very green.  One trustee has no email address, so communication is difficult—she has missed three out of five of the last board meetings.  Effectively, three green bottles.


Solly becomes the new board chair.  He and his two colleagues, Elli and Aroha-Marie, plunge straight into the task of appointing a new principal with only sketchy advice.  The principal’s departing shot: you can do this!  The barely-there board discovers, halfway through the principal appointment process, that it needs help.


The board’s mistakes compound.  Be fair, now.  How could the board know to connect a strategic plan to its recruitment strategy?  Did it know about the Ministry’s new leadership incentive offer?  Did its advertising deliver a quality field?


“Boy, were we green.  I had no idea we would have to appoint the principal!   We thought that the Ministry of Education would come in to help us and we could start all over,” says Elli.  “The principal said we could just do it ourselves.  We didn’t know that wasn’t a good idea.”


Solly, Elli and Aroha-Marie have innocently walked into marshy terrain.  Up to their gumboots in tricky industrial relations, poor executive advice and accountability and faced with legal mumbo-jumbo, they stumble.  It’s important to pick the right principal.  Children’s learning is on the line.  But their decisions are two steps behind the optimum; they can’t be blamed for what they don’t know.


Parent-led decision-making sounds very fine. Ah, boards can get professional advisors, you tell me.  Sure.  Like buying coffee, any quality assurance with that?  Appointing and managing a principal are professional tasks.  If Solly’s board bumbles to a legally binding conclusion, with or without good advice, should we care?


Somehow, the education system doesn’t reward adults in economically and socially challenged places like South Auckland when they put their hands up for school trusteeship.  Parents like Solly, Elli and Aroha-Marie are engaged in the school and the trustee role, they want to do it right, they want the best for the kids.  They are willing to learn.  They are full of hope for the task, feel honoured, even.  But they don’t know what they don’t know.  They may get it right, and surely get the blame if it goes wrong; but they’ve been set up.


Being responsible for a principal’s appointment, professional competence and delivery and accountability is like asking a mother with a bladder problem to trampoline for the Queen. It’s embarrassing, and it isn’t necessary.  There are other ways to empower people.


The answer isn’t to fire boards of trustees in places like South Auckland when they get it wrong.  Nor is the answer to install paid governors—quality-assured of course—alongside volunteer trustees like Solly, taking away his power and his commitment so that he will get it right.


These solutions make Solly and Elli and Aroha-Marie the problem, not the system.


The self-managing schools model needs the overhaul we have been promised, but haven’t yet got.


The minister of education asks for the professionals to bind together in ‘communities of learning’.  She’s looked at the research and, quite rightly, sees that we need a more collaborative attitude.   But underneath, we’re still in a competitive schools market, without a proper way to co-ordinate between schools.  Solly’s suburb has deep and difficult school rivalries. These don’t disappear because a minister asks people to work together.


21st century governance is about moving our education system away from the ‘expert-led market’ of principals and their schools to an ‘expert-led network’ of boards with a strong co-ordinating mechanism.  The principal should be an enrolled professional in a leadership group, supervised and supported by expert peers, offering services to a local community that is more than the sum of its parts: a fully inclusive ‘community of learning’.    That takes some sort of intermediary.  There’s international evidence that a mission-in-the-middle can be a powerful shot in the arm to overall school performance.


It is unfair to ask Solly, Elli and Aroha-Marie to manage the professional leader.  On the other hand, it is fair to ask them, with training, to oversee the contribution of their school to the wellbeing of the children in their school in particular, and to the children of their community.  Not only fair, but supported by evidence that parent involvement matters.


Of course Solly and his two trustee colleagues should be part of principal appointment for their school.  The support for them should have been embedded in the system, in a mission-in-the-middle; where principal appointment and appraisal is managed and supported in professional ways, with educational leadership for communities in mind.


Solly’s board have selected a new principal.  She promises to be a new broom.  Both the board and the principal are excited about the future.  Will they make a difference for the children in this community?  Please, wouldn’t we all want that?