Mentoring and Boards

Posted by on 27 February 2020

Does everyone involved in the running of schools recognise an effective board of trustees when they see one? Many will answer 'Yes' to this question but how much opportunity does the trustee on a single board have to measure the effectiveness of the board on which they serve? Of course most trustees know about governance and management and how each of these should observe appropriate boundaries but what those boundaries are may be largely determined by local history and the parts played by dominant personalities. Only a few board members currently serve on more than one board or be able to draw on previous trustee experience.

Many boards will be familiar with the idea of mentoring for the principal or other staff members. But how many will have considered the possibility of a mentor for the board? Few, probably, unless a board has found itself in some kind of a predicament.

In a not-for-profit organisation such as a school, a board's roles are largely determined by fiduciary and strategic responsibilities. This means the board has an overall responsibility for seeing that the law is followed, that the spending of public money is properly accounted for, and that the organisation is heading in an appropriate direction. However the board is also responsible with the principal for keeping faith with the school community and articulating the vision of the school.

This last role is one of the most important a board plays but it is one that some boards don't find easy. It calls for more than simply approving and monitoring the performance of the school management. A good question for trustees to ask themselves is "What value is the board adding to the school?"

Some boards find great value in working with a mentor. This could be an independent person, able to observe the board's practice and work with it to increase all aspects of the board's work, especially in helping a board to focus its energies on those areas where it can best add value to the school. It is easy for a board with an able principal for board members wonder if they aren't really a bit superfluous.

Similarly, it is easy for a board with less than confident principal to become too involved in day-to-day matters that should really be left to the management.

A board mentor should be able to suggest ways in which the board might work more effectively and satisfyingly. Most trustees bring to a board great skills and community knowledge but often standard meeting routines don't provide much opportunity for that knowledge and skill to be brought usefully to bear.

The most common causes of board failure and dysfunctionality are:

  1. inadequate financial management skills;
  2. dispute and factionalism within the board;
  3. dispute between the board and principal;
  4. dispute between the principal and staff members;
  5. dispute between the school and a section or sections of its community.