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Questions from Canada

| September 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Anne-Marie Kee

In 2009, there were two national organisations serving independent schools in Canada. The Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI) was the accreditation body, which is significant in a country where education is provincially governed. The Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) was the professional development association that offered a leadership institute along with a number of national conferences for school leaders. At that time, the landscape for education was rapidly changing, and together with an uncertain economy, emerging global markets, a declining birth rate in Canada and increasing competition from alternative private and independent, as well as public institutions, our member schools were facing unprecedented challenges.

Re-visioning the association

In responding to these issues, the boards of both CESI and CAIS had the courage to ask: if we were to blow up the two national associations and start over, would we create a different model?

The answer was a resounding yes! Both bodies agreed that there was opportunity to provide new and significant benefits to member schools by collaboratively creating a new national organisation, uniquely positioned as the ‘national voice of excellence in learning and leadership, shaping the future of education’. In the formation, the boards had to strike a balance between accountability and collegiality, between national standards and a national network.

In the summer of 2010, CAIS asked school heads and governing body chairs a follow-up question: to identify their three biggest challenges. They were – in order – human resources, financial sustainability and managing change.

We have spent our time since then developing an understanding of these three challenges and concomitantly developing programmes to help our schools. Our research is underpinned by yet another overarching line of enquiry: how do we ensure that CAIS schools have the best people – in the classroom and at the helm?

Human resources

We are hearing more and more about generational differences among teachers. Some say that the older generation is ‘change resistant’ and quick to take the shut-the-door-and-do-what-hasalways- worked approach. Some find that the younger generation doesn’t want to work as hard, yet their sense of entitlement is higher. For our 28 boarding schools, where there is the ‘triple threat’ of being not only a teacher, but also a coach and a house parent, the concern over work–life balance is a real priority.

Another HR challenge facing independent schools in Canada is that most of our CAIS member schools tie their remuneration to the local public school boards’ grid, which continues to increase at a level beyond inflation. For example, we have some public school boards paying teachers over Can$100 000 plus pension. While this is great news for those teachers, our CAIS member schools governing board members who are focused on financial sustainability are asking, “How can we compete?”

To address this issue, many of our schools have appointed an HR director who does much more than collect résumés and administer the interview process. They are also working on remuneration, staff evaluation and, increasingly, on leadership capacity and succession planning. The most recent trend is to include the HR director on the leadership team.

Extending thinking about leadership

At the association level, we are working hard to support leadership development in our schools. Bob Evans prefaces his book, Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader,1 with the following statement: “America’s schools are facing a new kind of crisis in leadership: almost no one, it seems, wants to do the job.” In Canada, the story is the same.

From a national point of view, we want to ensure that we have the best leaders in our schools. We challenged our member schools to think nationally – if each school develops leadership skills in its staff, then all of our schools will benefit from a larger pool of applicants.

So the question for us is this: how can a national association cultivate leadership? We took a two-pronged approach. We began with a vision for professional development programmes: they should be nationally compatible; based on current, global effective practice; and should prepare, connect and support leaders in independent schools. Such programmes should also have a demonstrable impact on educational excellence and continuous school improvement.

We then examined the Leadership Institute (LI) that we have now been offering for over 10 years, and introduced three new programmes:

1. Recognition.We honour those newly appointed school heads who have graduated from our programme with the opportunity for them to address the LI attendees each year. We also invited our member schools to nominate two experienced heads to give an Art of Leadership address.

2. Learning.We have added two modules focused on HR – an Introduction to Strategic HR and Coaching. We also introduced a programme for experienced heads, called Money and Managing Change. All have already proven to be popular.

3. Action.We are most proud of our Next Step programme, designed for current administrators nominated by their heads, who commit to implementing at their school a Change Project over one year and working with a CAIS mentor.

Financial sustainability

Tuition fees at boarding schools are now Can$50 000 and day school fees are over Can$20 000. This represents, in Canada, a 300% above inflation increase over the past 30 years. Boards and parents, quite rightly, are asking the question – for how long can we tolerate it?

Our benchmarking shows that fees have increased due to added programmes in areas such as risk management, learning support, community service, leadership, international cooperation, environmental and other cocurricular activities. We have also increased the number of administrators in our schools to be responsive to the ever-increasing demands from today’s parents. Additionally, our schools are wrestling with resource and facility improvement, financial aid, scholarships and bursaries, new revenue sources and advancement.

There are two big questions to be asked here: how do we reconcile ever-increasing demands with the need to keep fees at a level that doesn’t further diminish our accessibility over time? What can we do better together? In answer, we have added two programme developments:

1. Research. Last year, our annual benchmarking process was expanded to include advancement data; next year, we are looking at marketing metrics and enhanced enrolment data to assist our schools to become more effective at generating fund-raised and tuition-fee revenues.

2. Collaborative marketing. Three years ago, our 28 boarding schools confirmed a commitment to co-market two areas, entitled: ‘Why boarding?’ and ‘Why Canada?’ We shared the belief that ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’ and agreed to a longterm vision to fill our 4 500 boarding beds. To date, our schools have invested over Can$1 million to create a collaborative boarding website (, launch an ‘Experience More’ marketing campaign, actively recruit in emerging markets, and partner with government resources.

Managing change

With the proliferation of research on teaching and learning and the arrival of new technology, we know that the classroom, and therefore the school, must change. Educators and board members alike are asking relevant questions: what does ‘academic excellence’ look like? What is the value of technology? And, what are the risks?

Keeping pace with all this change is tough, and schools are also focusing on student issues such as well-being, meaningful connectivity, authentic selfhood, empathy, resilience and humility – the list of ‘essential skills’ for the 21st century learner goes on and on. We are all under pressure to provide more, and we are all looking for strategies for implementation.

So the biggest question is this: how do we mobilise our limited resources (assuming that continued above-inflation fee increases are fast becoming unacceptable) to provide cutting-edge learning programmes, ensure teachers are delivering it effectively, and know that our students are better prepared?

Bringing governors on board

Change of this magnitude presents unprecedented challenges for our school leaders. What is the role of boards in the change process? At CAIS, we believe that good governance is a critical part of the foundation of healthy, successful and sustainable independent schools. We also believe that there is a need for school governing boards to operate in all three modes of governance: fiduciary, strategic and generative. It is the last mode where there is the greatest opportunity for boards to add the most value, for in asking – and fiercely debating! – big, bold questions, board members can contribute to mission setting, strategy development and problem solving to shape the future of independent schools.

What are the questions our boards are discussing? Our preliminary findings include the following:

  • What skills and characteristics does a graduate need to be effective in today’s and tomorrow’s world?
  • How can our school be more accessible?
  • What are useful key performance indicators (KPIs) for a school?
  • What will the supply of really good educators look like over the next 20 years and what are the implications for independent schools?
  • What will the best schools look like in 10 years and why?
  • What will the big themes in education be over the next 10–20 years?

Good questions give rise to real growth We need to see authentic and fruitful collaboration between parents, teachers, heads, leadership teams and our governors based on curiosity, courage and conversations, as we work together for our schools and for the future of our students.

Our national association will continue to be in the business of asking good questions. I am proud to report that our 96 member schools are also committed to a real growth mindset, so there is no danger of falling into the trap of complacency. With a focus on improvement, I like to think that we are modelling the very 21st century skills that we are asking of our students.


1. Evans, R. (2010) Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass.

Category: Spring 2012

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