Reforms to school governance in Victoria
The new Education and Training Reform Bill is currently before the Victorian Parliament. As part of a suite of reforms that also includes raising the school leaving age and spelling out the Victorian Government’s position on religious education, the Bill seeks to consolidate and clarify the powers of school councils in government schools. It articulates clear objectives, functions and powers for school councils, as well as delineating the roles of councillors and principals. These legislative changes will be supported by complementary initiatives including simplification of council election processes, development of governance standards and a funding injection for school councillors’ training and support.
The Victorian Government’s focus on school councils arises from its 2005 Review of School Governance in Victorian Governance Schools. The review drew on findings from an earlier Review of Education and Training Legislation, and many of its recommendations will be implemented by way of legislation through the forthcoming Education and Training Reform Act. Preparation of the governance review entailed extensive consultation. A discussion paper was created outlining current issues and focus questions, which were then discussed by school councillors, local communities and other key stakeholders at 11 roundtable meetings throughout Victoria. Invitations for submissions were also sent directly to school councils. Information was made available to the general public through the department’s website, newspaper advertisements and community forums held by several members of parliament. A total of 132 written responses to the discussion paper were received, with more than half (61 per cent) coming from school councils. A further 3 per cent came from principals, with the remainder coming from other individuals or stakeholder groups.
The role of the school council
Victoria’s Blueprint for Government Schools articulates the government’s commitment to improving school performance and delivering quality education outcomes. The role of the school council needs to be refocused to become more consistent with this performance-oriented approach.
The role of the school council in Victorian government schools has evolved, from its 1872 inception as a management body for schools and school buildings, to encompass financial management, some staffing responsibilities, planning and reporting. Broadly, the role of a school council is now to develop the school’s strategic plan, determine the educational policy for the school and allocate resources that will enhance the educational opportunities of students at the school.
The technical review of education legislation identified 30 separate functions and powers of school councils, which are incorporated into amendments to the legal description of the council’s role in the new Bill. The Bill also articulates differences between the council’s role and the role of the principal, which had not been specified in previous legislation.
School councils have an important role to play in strengthening the local community’s ability to help the school achieve its aims. The Bill includes a statement to underscore the importance of schools engaging with the wider community. Models of good practice are identified and disseminated to school communities, and may include such strategies as forums for parental involvement which reflect community diversity, or identifying local needs through Local Learning and Employment Networks. School councils’ power to delegate will also be increased through the Bill, to enable them to outsource tasks more easily and draw on community skills.
Councils need to be aware of the different possibilities available to them for membership. Most councils comprise two mandated membership categories: elected parents, and elected Department of Education and Training employees, which automatically includes the principal. Most also have a third, optional category, for community members who are co-opted by the council without the need for an election. Understanding membership options may assist councils in overcoming difficulties in attracting members with an appropriate mix of skills and interests, and improving available information about membership will be part of the Department’s council education strategy.
With respect to membership regulations, the requirement that parents and community members constitute a majority on a school council will be retained. It will not become compulsory to have a student representative on the school council, but the Department will investigate and promote ways in which councils can involve students in decision-making processes.
The government will create clear standards for governance in Victorian state schools. Broadly, governance is separated into two key responsibilities: performance, or setting out schools’ aims and working towards achieving them; and conformance, or ensuring that governance arrangements enable the council to meet legal and regulatory requirements, as well as community expectations. It is intended that clear standards will enable state school governance structures to become stronger and more adaptable to different models of education provision. Any standards for council governance must take into account the voluntary status of school council members.
Time-consuming and expensive school council elections will be simplified, without compromising fairness. The Department will work with the Victorian Electoral Commission and key education stakeholders to develop improved election processes. From 2007, council elections will be required to take place through an annual election meeting. Existing terms of office, which in most cases entail half the positions being vacated for election each year, will be retained.
Training and support
Volunteer council members must receive adequate training and induction to enable them to fulfil their role. At present, the training councillors receive is inconsistent and dependent on their individual school’s approach. Victorian Minister for Education Services Jacinta Allan has recently announced that the State Government will invest $550,000 in training and support for volunteer school councillors. Councillors will be supported through a dedicated website and online training modules in budgeting, planning and policy development. As well as online resources, the Department will devise clear protocols for regional and central office support for school councils to ensure that help is available. The investment is intended to serve as recognition of the important contribution volunteer councillors make to setting school policies and goals and ensuring public accountability.
A focus on performance
School councils have much to offer in assisting schools to set and achieve performance objectives and fulfil imperatives of accountability. The Department will continue to support school councils in improving their performance in line with relevant legislation.
Information for this article was obtained from the following sources:
Subject HeadingsSchool and community