26 SES 14 B, There's Never Just One Level – Governance Perspectives, Issues of Autonomy and System Boundaries
In Australia, the UK and across Europe, principals and head teachers operate under the oversight of governing bodies – also known as school boards or school councils– that meet legal requirements for funding of a school, serve a central governance role and make (and place scrutiny on) important decisions. Depending on the context, the limits and boundaries of the advice of school boards may vary considerably and “across OECD countries, there are different models of composition and roles of school boards” (Pont, Nusche & Moorman, 2008, p 88). Resolutions of school councils set the parameters for leadership practices and resolve issues that may be problematic to school leaders. Governing bodies set the strategic direction or course for the school, while principals or head teachers – who may or may not be central members of such bodies – run organisational matters in a school in line with the strategic direction, to ensure accountability (Hooge, Burns, & Wilkoszewski, 2012).
The origins, makeup and functions of such bodies are quite disparate, reflecting dominant, residual and emergent discourses on democratic, professional and budgetary roles in different nation states, including devolution, school improvement and accountability and autonomy (Whitty, Power & Halpin, 1998; Martínez Ruiz, & Hernández-Amorós, 2017; Keddie 2017).
While divisions between the governing responsibilities of a school governing board and the leadership role of the school principal may be clear on paper, in practice, the roles of the school council and school principal are often in a state of tension due to asymmetries of power which raise questions of trust in how to navigate the progress of a school and re-evaluate its direction as necessary. Tensions between members of school councils and leaders occasionally require government intervention, and are occasionally used as a mechanism for ensuring compliance to policy goals (see Wilkins 2016).
Despite the widespread acceptance of the importance of such bodies, and their enshrining in policies and texts, remarkably little attention has been devoted to both understanding their practices and to theorising their place in fields of education (though see Pharis, Bass and Pate, 2005 in relation to practices), instead accepting the school council through its description in government policy, or to reducing it to its effects on classroom practice and student learning in order to fit into modelling of school effects (Leithwood, Stanzi and Steinbach1999). Remarkably little research attention has focussed on the interactions and relations between school councils and school leadership. This paper reports on a project that opens this gap by exploring the roles, functions and practices of the school council and the relationship between school leadership (exercised by the school principal or head teacher and his or her senior leadership team) and the perceived effectiveness of the school council. The guiding questions for this research included:
1 How are the roles of governing bodies in government schools perceived to be changing?
2 How do school councils currently operate with regard to:
- their formally designated roles and functions?
- perceived strengths and weaknesses?
- the extent to which they are perceived to fulfil their formally designated role/prescribed functions?
- perceived levels of effectiveness and contribution to school success, however defined?
- the capacity of members in all categories to contribute to decision-making?
- the rules or provisions governing their own operations?
2 How do school principals/headteachers contribute to the operation of the school council?
The paper reports on a study currently taking place within one local authority school in the UK and one state school in Australia. This paper reports specifically on new ways to consider school governing bodies, drawing on Bourdieu’s practice theory to theorise the role and functions of school councils.
This qualitative research project employs a multiple case study design with data gathered from two government schools, one each in the Australian state of Victoria and one in England, UK. The research design draws from the comparative case study approach developed by Bartlett and Vavrus (2017) which focuses on context, a complementary concept to Bourdieu’s concept of field (Bourdieu 1996; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) where context is made, is both relational and spacial, and attends to power relations. Data gathering techniques involve document analysis (for meeting agendas and minutes, education department and school policy documents, school council membership and terms of reference statements, and school council operating procedures); semi-structured interviews with school council members; and direct observation (of one school council meeting at each research site). Within this case study research the research interest is roles, functions and practices of the school council in general terms rather than the study of a particular school or even the study of a school council at a particular school for its own sake (Stake 2005, p. 446). Purposive sampling will be used to select two research sites (state schools). Thus, one is in the Australian state of Victoria and one is in England, UK. The research investigates the similarities and differences between the school council (Australia) and the school’s governing body (UK). Analysis will take the form of within case and then cross case examination of similarities and differences and themes.
The aim of the study was to identify key issues, similarities and differences with a view to identifying potential for a larger future cross-national comparative study in this area. The comparative component of the study is important because there is considerable borrowing of policy between Australia and England (Lingard 2010) with regard to the governance and leadership of schools, amongst other matters. English government schools have progressed further and faster down the pathway of autonomy than Australian schools but it remains the stated goal of the Australian government to further increase school autonomy, following the English lead (Keddie 2017). However, in both nation states there is very little empirical research on the role and function of the school council as the principal governance body within each setting. In this context there are many questions to be answered around the changing role of the school council amid requirements for increased autonomy and accountability. The role of the school council in relation to school performance and school success is also largely unexamined, as is the changing nature of the relationship between school principals or head teachers and their school councils. An important outcome reported in this paper is a conceptualisation of the relationship between school governance and school leadership and school governance effectiveness. This research project seeks to make a beginning contribution towards addressing some of these knowledge gaps.
Bartlett, L & Vavrus, F 2017, 'Comparative case studies: An innovative approach', Nordic Journal of Comparative and International Education, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 5-17.
Bourdieu, P 1996, The State Nobility: Elite schools in the field of power, Polity, Cambridge.
Bourdieu, P & Wacquant, LJD 1992, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge.
Cerna, L. (2014), “Trust: What it is and Why it Matters for Governance and Education”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 108, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Hooge, E., Burns, T., & Wilkoszewski, H. (2012). Looking beyond the numbers: Stakeholders and multiple school accountability. OECD Education Working Papers, (85), 0_1.
Keddie, A 2017, Why Australia should not follow (English politician) Nick Gibb’s advice on how to run our schools, Australian Association for Research in Education, retrieved 1 November 2017 2017,
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