Governing is not the same as governance

Most board members and school principals are aware of the fundamental difference between the board’s role (governance) and the principal’s role (management).  Both roles are important components in the leadership partnership, and it is essential that the respective roles are never confused or blurred.  I wrote about this in some detail in The Red Line.

On the other hand, the difference between governance and governing is less clearly understood by many school board members.

John Lennon quote used during protests in Hong Kong in October 2014

In its essence, school governance focuses on power, developing the philosophical framework for the institution, overseeing implementation and achievement of philosophical and strategic goals, and taking responsibility for legal, financial and other fiduciary duties.

On the other hand, governing focusses more on operational processes.  The process of governing involves implementing and enforcing certain rules and norms, ensuring compliance, and supervising the work of others.  In this sense, it could be argued that implementing the processes of governing (as opposed to governance) is the responsibility of management.

Because governance concerns power, it also involves accepting responsibility.  That is why school boards are ultimately responsible for everything that happens in a school – bad as well as good.  This may seem a bit unfair at first, given that boards are supposed to oversee the school’s operations without becoming directly involved in the day-to-day operations (which would be governing, not governance).

Of course, it is not really unfair because the board has all the power it needs to ensure completely effective operations in every area of the school.  We know the board has this power because it is the board which appoints the one key person – the Principal – to whom the responsibility (and thus the accountability) is delegated to ensure everything in the school is done to the high philosophical, ethical, legal, financial and quality standards required by the Board.  This explains why the relationship between the board and the Principal is by far the most critically important relationship in the school – it is the link between governance and governing.

In accepting responsibility for the power it has, boards need to be prepared to be scrutinised and held accountable for decisions they have made.  This can take many forms depending upon the constitutional structure of the school.  Some school boards report to regular (though often infrequent) gatherings of stakeholders, such as parents, alumni and staff – always with the Principal in attendance of course.  Other school boards report directly only to the school’s owner, whether this is a company, a church, an NGO, an individual, the government or some other organisation, usually at an Annual General Meeting (AGM), although sometimes through other reporting channels.  Boards of schools that accept government funding and/or which require external accreditation or registration will, of course, also have reporting obligations to those authorities.

Whatever reporting mechanism is used, and whatever structures are in place, two key concepts are essential for both governance and governing – honesty and transparency.  This is not dream-like idealism; it is essential.  If either honesty or transparency is lost in a school, that school’s future will almost certainly spiral downwards to become precarious at heart-breaking speed.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Our workshop on the relationship between Governance and Management provides school leaders and boards with clear, practical insights into the different roles of school boards and managers, and how they can work positively and practically in effective partnership.

Further information on effective leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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