Learn the reasons your school board’s role in strategy is really important

Learn the reasons your school board’s role in strategy is really important

5 min read

By Stuart Robinson

what is the role of the board in school strategy?

There have been plenty of conversations with principals and boards regarding each party’s role in the development and implementation of school strategy. It is an area that repeatedly perplexes both governance and management. And a quick Google search is unlikely to alleviate the confusion.

Some experts profess that this is the sole domain of the board while others argue that the principal and their executive should be leading the way. In the education sector many school boards consider strategy to be the scope of the principal.

Who’s right? And how should the entwining complexity of governance vs management manifest through crafting and executing strategy?

In an article by the Corporate Governance Institute, author Jo Ellis outlines some of the board’s key responsibilities toward strategy formulation and execution. In essence, their role is to govern and provide oversight. That’s what governors do. It is the board’s role to set the school’s mission, vision, and value statements.

But the strategy should be crafted and executed by the principal – in alignment with those tenets while collaborating with the board and stakeholders.

the board defines the ‘paddock’

By its very nature, the role of oversight comes furnished with risk. It demands a level of trust and accountability bestowed on others – in this case, the principal – to accomplish the desires of the board without them micro-managing the detail. Therefore, limits need to be put in place.

A farmer will define a paddock with fences. They set the parameters for their livestock to graze freely without fear of wandering off or drifting outside their boundaries. It provides the farmer with certainty and assurance that their animals don’t get lost or steer off in dangerous directions.

So it is with defining a paddock for management. They don’t need to be told what they can do. They need boundaries only to define where they can operate.

what does the ‘paddock’ look like?

Here are several examples of what a paddock might look like for school management:

  • Limiting the geographical span of the school. A regional school may sense competition creeping into their ‘patch’ and feel the need to enlarge their intake area or build another campus. This may be counter-intuitive to the board’s desire to deepen the school’s growth (curriculum, pastoral care) rather than increase numerically.
  • Remain a single sex school. The challenge to remain single sex seems to increase continually with a few schools opting to diversify by offering co-ed services. The school board may see this as a non-negotiable forcing management to stay in this realm even when it would be easier to venture out.
  • Define a flagship offering. Many schools opt to create flagship services to differentiate them from their competitors. Music, theatre, arts, IT, STEM, sport are just a few and its very possible to create niches within these. However, the temptation is to offer them all, or at least as many as you can. Defining the paddock in this instance may be limiting the school to a few, and even just one.


what does the board’s involvement look like over time?

Jeroen Kraaijenbrink, in his book The One Hour Strategy highlights how one hour per day, week, or month based on the individuals’ role keeps the strategy functioning dynamically. I would contest that the board also adopt a similar regime by including one hour per meeting to discuss strategy.

This would include reports from management and feedback from stakeholders. It would prioritise board time to critically interrogate management’s execution of the strategy. The board could assess management’s handling of upcoming disruptions and offer guidance on matters where the board may have specific expertise. This is where the board can comprehensively add value to the school community.


the relationship nexus of school strategy

The final role of the board in strategy is to provide direction for all the players within the school community and how their relationships interconnect.

There are three relationships that are incredibly pertinent to successful school strategy – the board, the principal, and stakeholders.

The Board holds a governance lens. The Governance Institute of Australia (GIA) provides a useful definition as, “Governance encompasses the system by which an organisation is controlled and operates, and the mechanisms by which it, and its people, are held to account.” The key phrase here is “are held to account”.

The Principal has a management perspective. While there are many definitions of what management is and does, I prefer organisational theorist Harold Koontz’s view. He summises that, “Management is an art of getting things done through and with the people in formally organized groups. It is an art of creating an environment in which people can perform and individuals and can co-operate towards attainment of group goals.”[i]

The third relationship is with Stakeholders. This group combines service providers (teachers, contractors, volunteers) and consumers (students and parents) and those with a stake in the entity and its outcomes (alumni, the wider community). Their perspective is a lens on operational matters.


the engagement level of these relationships

Obviously, the three main parties are all driven by the school strategy, and it is at the centre of all they do.

However, each has a specific level of engagement that underpins their connection to the strategy.

The Board – Principal engagement is based on risk. The Board, from their governance lens, takes the view that the Principal must be held accountable to the strategy and its implementation. This creates a level of risk. Their desire is to mitigate this risk and will utilise tools to help govern the outcomes they seek (balanced scorecards and KPI’s are typical applications).

To counter this risk the Principal – Stakeholder engagement resides upon good systems. Policies and procedures set forth the successful implementation of strategy. While the Principal monitors the systems through continual change processes stakeholders should also be immersed by owning, adapting, and improving the systems based on their learning and relevant data.

Finally, the Stakeholder – Board engagement occurs through networks. The Board, as a natural composition of stakeholders, interacts with other stakeholders to ascertain the relevance of the current strategic direction and its successful execution. The network via formal and informal channels provides feedback to each party. These highlight the progress being made and possible disruptions on the horizon.


To wrap this up, the board’s role in school strategy development and implementation is to provide oversight and governance. They don’t need to craft or execute the strategy, but they are responsible to define its boundaries, make strategy a priority, and direct the relationship nexus of all parties.

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson: MBA, 25+ years in school management. Business degree, AICD graduate. Founder and author sharing expertise in educational leadership, strategy, and financial management.

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