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Learning curves: How school governing bodies must strike a balance between control and management

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is the Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Education Faculty at the University of Stellenbosch.

South Africa’s more than 24,000 schools completed elections for school governing bodies – their legal entities – in March and April. This governance function must not be confused with school management, which is the task of the principal and management team.

At high schools, seven parents are elected as well as two teachers and one non-CS (college and school) educator, such as a secretary or grounds supervisor. Due to their position as manager of the school, the principal is ex officio a member of the governing body. At primary schools, five parents, two teachers and one non-CS educator are elected plus the principal. This process is completed and now the hard work starts. In the next few months provincial education departments start the training of new school governing bodies.

Article 20 of the South African Schools Act expects governing bodies to take decisions on the safety of pupils, the appearance of the school grounds, school fees and quality tuition. The act also gives clear guidelines on what is expected. To function at a high level, intervention by experts is required, which the school does not necessarily have.

The good news is that individuals can be co-opted to perform certain specialist functions in the governing body. This includes, for example, a lawyer to assist the governing body during disciplinary meetings or when the school is involved in a court case. Another important function of governing bodies is finance, which has to do with budgets, fundraising and the transparent management of school funds. Therefore, it is a good idea to co-opt an accountant.

By getting involved in the management of your child’s school you can make a difference in the community.

The primary task of the governing body is governance. It involves the control of external factors and setting the policy which guides the school’s administration, namely the admissions policy, the code of conduct for pupils, the language policy, the school’s mission and vision, appointment of teachers and other staff and determination of school hours. Principals can thus not simply close the school as they wish.

Other functions include establishing a committee for finance, buildings and terrain, discipline, hostels, marketing, sport and culture. A member of the governing body must at all times chair such a committee but the committee can be extended by adding parents or experts who can add value.

The governing body functions as the school’s legal entity. Any contract of the school can only be entered into by the governing body after approval by the department. This governance function must not be confused with school management. There is a fine but clear line between governance and management. Management is the task of the principal and the management team consisting of deputy principals, heads of department and sometimes subject heads who must implement the policies and instructions of the governing body and the department.

A relationship of trust between the principal and the governing body is indispensable. One of the most unpleasant tasks I ever had to undertake as circuit manager was to solve conflict between the principal and the governing body. Conflict is detrimental to service delivery. That is why a clear demarcation of territory between the two parties is required.

When the governing body and the principal work together in harmony, success is guaranteed. DM

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