This research presents and explains the role and work of the governing body of an Australian independent school and explores the complex and dynamic interplay of factors that influence the educational and governance practices of the School Council. My experience as a member of a governing body of an independent school led me to investigate the world of independent school governance. A review of the literature on corporate governance, nonprofit governance and school governance provided insights into the theoretical underpinnings of governance models; however, these were revealed as one-dimensional and inadequate to explain the complex and dynamic governance environment of an independent school. The majority of the literature was founded in normative prescriptions for governance, with little support from empirical investigation and a paucity of empirical research on governance in the independent school sector was noted. The literature also revealed the growing influence of corporate governance ‘best practice’ models and principles on nonprofit organizations and schools. The conventional governance literature therefore offered few tools with which to study governance in an independent school, and required investigation beyond the governance literature to identify an appropriate theoretical approach as a framework in which to interpret, structure and present research findings from a case study research method. Bourdieu’s sociologically based thinking tools of habitus, capitals and field, together with the complementary conception of organizational culture of Schein, were selected to illuminate and explain the different facets of the complex integrated social processes of governance of an independent school by its governing body. The case study research method facilitated access to rich data, through twelve months of observations at School Council meetings, interviews and documents, on all aspects of the governing of a large, well established, metropolitan, independent school by its School Council, including cultural and social practices. An auxiliary qualitative research method, in the form of interviews with members of governing boards of ‘like’ independent schools, assisted to frame the themes that emerged from the data sets and placed the case study school in the context of these schools.
The major findings of this case study are organized into five themes; namely the specificities of educational governance, accountabilities, culture, school ownership and gender. Governance in a school context presents unique challenges, including the complexity of stakeholder management, the presence of stakeholders as members of the governing body, and the relationship between the governing body and the school Head. That relationship is undergoing significant evolution in response to the dual nature of the role of the contemporary school Head as Chief Executive Officer and Educator-in-Chief. Defining and operationalizing the roles of the School Council vis-à-vis the school Head presents significant challenges and is influenced by the experience of the school Head as a Chief Executive Officer relative to his or her experience as an Educator-in-Chief, and the collective skills and experiences of School Council members. The School Council’s conception of accountability, for the authority conferred upon it to govern the School, was identified as a significant generating structure for the governance practices of the School Council. A clear notion of accountability to the Church that owned the School, to parents, to students (present and past) and to staff informed the work of the School Council. The School’s history informed and shaped the School’s culture and the deeply embedded assumptions that guided and constrained the work of the School Council. The School Council was faced with the challenge of responding to emerging ‘hyper competition’ between like schools for excellence in academic scholarship, within the cultural construct of an all round educational journey, laid down by the School’s founder some one hundred years previously. The ownership of the School by a mainstream Christian Church created a significant tension for the School Council, who saw their role to govern the school as an entity separate to, although owned by the Church. In governing the School, the School Council’s focus was primarily to strengthen and develop the School as an institution and educational services business. The School Council facilitated the conversion of religiosity to values so the School could respond to the expectations of its predominantly secular clientele. The Church, however, saw the School as an integrated part of an organization, and had a different approach to governance. Issues of interpretation of the Church’s mission, financial contributions by the School to broader Church activities and appointments to and composition of the School Council created points of tension between the Church and the School Council. The final theme that emerged from the data concerned gender. The School, specializing in boys’ education, was an environment shaped and dominated by men. Although there was gender diversity on the School Council, with two female Councillors in a Council of nine members, the data revealed that the cultural capitals valued within the School Council privileged male Councillors. This dynamic was a significant influence on the governance practices of the School Council. Communication styles also privileged male Councillors, although were moderated to some extent by cultural norms of respectful communication and decisions by consensus.
The contestation between the governance role of the School Council and the management role of the School’s Head and how that contestation shaped governing and managing tasks in the School was a central theme in the findings. The interfaces between the School Council and the Head were a source of continual tensions and required ongoing and skilful oversight by the Chairman of the School Council. These tensions were replicated in the interfaces between the Church, as the owner of the School, and the School Council, as the governing body. The Chairman also had a critical role in navigating these interfaces. The findings reflected a universal theme in the corporate governance and nonprofit governance literature of tension at the boundary of board and management and the call for an approach founded in a notion of ‘shared accountability’ and governance practices that are responsive to the specificities of the organization.
The findings of this research may inform the educational and governance practices of governing bodies of schools, and in particular independent schools. Schools will benefit from governance practices that enable them to be contemporary learning environments, while remaining responsive to their own context, ethos and stakeholders. Given the paucity of empirical research on independent school governance, the findings of this research may also inform further governance research in this sector. Although the structure of governance is broadly similar across independent schools, the sector is characterized by significant diversity in terms of type, size, focus and stakeholders and there is an opportunity to understand the influence of these factors on governance practices. The choice of research method for this research and the methodological issues addressed during the study may also contribute to the ongoing development of qualitative research approaches to educational research.