‘They’re just not fit for purpose any more’: School boards struggle to cope

A vast army of untrained volunteers give up their time to run schools. Can they really keep up with the rapid pace of change?

Colette and Gareth* carefully chose a primary school for their son and daughter. They both wanted a co-educational school without a religious ethos and, ideally, one with children from a range of backgrounds and nationalities. At first the whole family was happy. In particular, their daughter, Aoife, thrived and made lots of friends.

But, as it became clear that their son had a range of complex disabilities including sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia and autism, the little boy, Conor, struggled in class.

“Conor came home from school and said the teacher had shouted at him in a negative and derogatory way,” Colette says. “He wasn’t able to follow instructions in a timely manner, but this was because of his conditions. We wanted a plan put in place that would support him without disrupting the class.”

Colette says she spoke to the teacher, but her concerns were dismissed and Conor was treated as a troublemaker, rather than as a child who needed support.

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Relations between the family and the teacher gradually broke down, and Colette says the principal ultimately backed the teacher. They have since removed Conor from the school and put him in another school where, Colette says, he is “thriving.”

“We went through the grievance procedure but it was layers and layers of bureaucracy and we felt that employment protection trumped child protection. After much back and forth, we complained to the board of management.”

The complaint ultimately reached the board and, months later, is ongoing.

School boards of management – which are entirely composed of volunteers – deal with more than complaints and child protection issues: they have significant legal and regulatory responsibilities and need to keep up with changes in employment law, financial management, health and safety regulations, fundraising and a whole host of unexpected problems that can arise, from securing broadband to deciding on whether to expel a child.

And, according to a recent report from the chief inspector of schools, Dr Harold Hislop, “because of their voluntary nature, boards might not be adequately equipped for their significant responsibilities... The voluntary nature of school governance arrangements is not sustainable.”

The report says: “It can be difficult for board members to dedicate sufficient time to deal with the range of tasks in their role. The tradition of volunteerism and civic contribution is a critical component in the day-to-day running of schools.

“However, as highlighted in the previous chief inspector’s report [2016], there remains a need for reflection and planning at [Department of Education] level to provide for a more sustainable form of school management.”

Principals and school leaders have been crying out for years that cuts to school leadership during the financial crisis that began in 2008 were never reversed, leaving them with an unsustainable workload – and increasingly reliant on boards of management.

Given the sensitive nature of their work, members of boards of management – which consist of eight people including two parent representatives, two staff representatives, two community representatives and two representatives or nominees of the patron body (such as the Catholic diocese, Educate Together or the education and training board) – can be reluctant to talk publicly about their work.

The chairman of a board of management in a secondary school, who declined to be named, says he can empathise with the concerns expressed by the chief inspector.

“I feel that boards of management are not fit for purpose,” he says. “The amount of work involved feels somewhere between a part and full-time job. Chairs have to work late in the evening to compensate for time spent on school matters, and it is not only completely unpaid but there are no expenses. We feel like our role is to tick boxes and dilute the responsibility and accountability of the Department of Education. We write letters to the department but never get any reply. We are left on our own.

“There is an enormous amount of responsibility for running a school handed to people who may not have the first clue about how to run a school. There is some training but it is limited and not enough to keep up. You could not have the expertise required to cover all these areas and are entirely reliant on the principal and, if you’re lucky enough to have one, the deputy principal.”

Even leaving aside the legal, human resources and public relations issues, it can be challenging simply to get your head around the education system if you yourself are not a teacher, the chairman says.

“We hear about the Droichead programme [an induction programme for new teachers], classroom-based assessments, and we spend so much time getting our heads around the terminology and the nuts and bolts of how the education system works.

“It is endlessly complex and there are so many different stakeholders – the Joint Managerial Body which represents the interests of voluntary secondary schools, the Financial Services Support Unit which supports boards of management, the patron body, the Department of Education and more. Board members also have to attend interviews for staff, and there can be a few dozen of these within the space of a month.

“We had an IT issue in the school and it took an enormous effort to figure out who was responsible, with so many agencies involved that my head spun.”

Disciplinary issues or issues of conflict between a teacher and a child – which he says are not uncommon where a child is autistic or has ADHD – are among the trickiest for boards.

In Conor’s case, The Irish Times has seen the correspondence between the school, board and parents.

In one letter to the chair of the board – who is a public representative – Colette writes: “We had many, many phone calls with the principal, we had two meetings where we raised our issues [and] we have written many letters and responded in a game of ping-pong. We feel we have exhausted every avenue.”

A parent and student charter to help resolve issues like these was first mooted in 2016 but remains stalled in the Oireachtas.

Colette is considering taking the matter to the Ombudsman for Children, where the bulk of complaints regularly relate to education and school matters, particularly where parents feel a board of management has failed them.

“We are stonewalled and tied up in red tape,” she says.

*Names were changed at interviewees’ request

Is this a future model for ‘unsustainable’ boards of management?

The chief inspector’s report outlines a number of possibilities, highlighting a pilot project, in place since 2015, which allows two schools under the same patron to share a governance structure.

“During the period of this report, very few schools availed of shared governance,” the report noted. “Smaller schools should be encouraged to establish shared governance arrangements.”

Such arrangements may take regional forms and could potentially be facilitated by local Education and Training Boards.

The Irish Primary Principals Network is working on a plan to relieve the pressure from the shoulders of school principals.

John Curtis, chief executive of the Joint Managerial Body, says schools need particular support with boards of management.

“We are working with the department in assisting schools and boards on issues such as child protection, finance, vetting, procurement, building projects, and in this way are ensuring that there are proper governance and compliance procedures in place. We have also been engaging with the inspectorate on supporting boards with their leadership for learning remit.

“Along with other management bodies, we are particularly keen that there would be an improvement in the allocation of deputy principal posts in our schools as we would consider this the most effective way of equipping management and boards in schools to deal with the administrative and governance matters they increasingly have to attend to,” Curtis says.