The relationship between school heads and boards

Recently, the South African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) has raised its concern that some ISASA school boards have summarily dismissed their heads without any substantive reasons being given and/or following due process.

This alleged peremptory conduct has not only affected school heads. It is claimed that some bursars have also fallen victim to school boards. The question posed by SAHISA (and possibly by the Southern African Bursars of Independent Schools Association (SABISA) in the future), is what is the role of ISASA in such situations? Should ISASA be defending the beleaguered head or represent the school, in the form of supporting all decisions made by boards, whether fair or not and in some instances in breach of the labour laws of the country which require fair labour practices from all employers? Obviously this is a complex question which provides no easy answers.

The power dynamic between boards and heads

In independent schools, the phenomenon of the asymmetrical power dynamic between a head and a board is universal. After all, the head serves at the pleasure of the board. Therefore, a headship is dependent on the strength and maturity of the governing board. Ideally, independent schools should be led by strong boards that are strategically focussed rather than interfering in the operations of the school. A board that understands its fiduciary duty appreciates that its role is to support the head of school, since a successful head results in a thriving school. However, as the former headmaster of Eton College, Tony Little, has observed, functional boards cannot be taken for granted. In his experience: It is not difficult to find tales of misgovernance, especially in relationship to the head: a head facing sustained criticism over time is sacked by his new chairman a week into the new academic year, an action destined to cause maximum stress for all involved including parents and pupils; a head’s relationship with his chairman deteriorates to the point that communication is only conducted through written notes; a split governing body appoints one man as head only to sack him before he takes up his appointment in favour of another; the governing body believing in robust interrogation of candidates discovers that the entire shortlist for the post of head has melted away leaving them with nobody; or the governors who whimsically reject the best candidate in the field because he has a beard.1 ISASA could contribute other variances to such deleterious actions from boards within its membership. Neither does it underestimate the institutional vulnerability of a school that is led by a board which misapprehends the importance of its duties.

Potentials and pitfalls

Boards are composed of people who have gone to school. As a result, some board members believe that they know what running a school entails as well as, or better than, professional educators. Another factor that can harm school boards are commercial leaders or professional experts who are board members, who believe that the success of how they lead their own commercial enterprises, easily translates into how a school should be governed. Although highly skilled professionals and successful commercial leaders can significantly enhance the capabilities of a school board, those skills need to be adapted for application within a school environment. While commercial success can be measured by financial indicators, the achievements of an educational institution cannot easily be quantified. While financial strength is indispensable for institutional sustainability and ensuring that a school’s mission is attained, financial matrixes alone are ill-suited to measure an academic enterprise. Excellent academic, cultural or sporting results are only a factor for consideration of whether a school is good. When dealing with human beings, achievement must be measured in long-term quality of life outcomes.

Abrupt leadership changes weaken institutional trust

Inevitably, when a board falters, it is seldom the board that is removed. Instead, it is often the head on whom the scarlet letter is embossed. This propensity is best described in an axiom found in an article by Lee Quinby, who says: “When the head of a school makes a big mistake, the board fires the head. When the board makes a big mistake, the board fires the head.”2 His article, “Changing Horses in Midstream: The Dangers of Unplanned Transitions”,3 explores the importance of having leadership stability in schools. He concurs with Little that unplanned leadership changes in schools tend to destabilise schools to a greater extent than for profit entities. Quinby does not question dismissals based on objectively accepted grave misdemeanors. He posits that, “I’m not talking about the rare cases of gross negligence, incapacity, or criminal behaviour that clearly justify a head’s dismissal. I’m talking about the all-too- common situation in which a head of school becomes the scapegoat for problems that could have been avoided or resolved with better communication and collaboration.”4 Quinby’s thesis is that schools are relational organisms. Abrupt leadership changes weaken institutional trust and may cause greater problems than the perceived shortcomings of remaining with the present leader whilst implementing a structured transition. As Siri Akal Khalsa, the executive director of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools in America, notes, “The reality for almost all school heads and their boards is that the urgent always overwhelms the important.”5 It seems that internationally, the consensus amongst independent school associations is that dismissing a head of school to resolve a perceived difficulty, does not often bring a resolution, but rather creates other impediments.

A prevailing trend

At the end of February this year, prior to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) conference, I had an opportunity to attend the Independent School Association Network (ISAnet) meeting in California. I was intrigued that the topic of discussion at this meeting of school associations from around the US was the question of the sudden departures of school heads. There was a deep concern from school association executive directors that boards are summarily dismissing far too many heads, and in the process damaging their schools. One of my counterparts, Claudia M Daggett, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States in the US, made a presentation on this topic at this year’s NAIS conference. Under the title, “Out the Door: What We Can Learn from Abrupt Departures from Headship”,6 Daggett highlighted the sudden spike in heads leaving schools with less than two months’ notice, from an average of about 14% on an annual basis to 38% in the autumn of 2017. She posits that this increase can be attributed to six factors:

  • The first is the period in which we find ourselves. In my first Trends Report delivered at the 2014 ISASA Forum before the SAHISA conference, I too identified that we live in a time characterised as VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Leadership during uncertain times may place undue pressure on how heads navigate new terrain.

  • Another factor of leadership instability according to Daggett is unrealistic expectations of boards on what heads can deliver within a short time period.


  • Financial pressures on schools due to decreases in enrolment.


  • A generational shift in which millennials expect personalised treatment and are less concerned with the needs of the group.


  • The increasing use of 360-degree surveys to evaluate the performance of heads. Daggett cautions that the shortcomings of this form of evaluation is that “[w]e forget that the head’s job is not, first and foremost, to keep everyone pleased but, rather, to sustain a healthy school that fills its mission, balancing competing interests and needs within that context.”


  • Finally, through focus groups, she found that some heads are disinclined to adopt a shared leadership style with the board to implement the shared vision and strategic plan of the school. Rather than heads managing up, they should establish a partnership with the board.

Tremendous social change in South Africa and its schools

I suspect that some of the factors found by Daggett may be applicable in South Africa. To my mind, as already communicated to membership, South Africa, as with the rest of the world, finds itself in VUCA times. In our case, South Africa is undergoing tremendous societal change. Previously accepted societal hierarchies are now being perceptively challenged. Thus, the capacity of a head to traverse skillfully the cultural competencies and understandings of marginalised communities demanded by various stakeholders could determine their longevity at the helm.
ISASA has identified this global trend regarding worries about the length of tenure of headships. As a result, it placed the relationship between the board and head as a plenary session at its combined conference last year. That session was one of the most animated sessions I have seen at a conference. Besides opening up a vital dialogue between the largest, in half- a-decade, collection of heads and governors within membership, the plenary session was also used to launch the guideline compiled by me and two ISASA executive committee members, Gail Forsman and David Geral and entitled: “Building Positive Relationships between Management and Board Structures in Independent Schools”. As this title indicates, central to any successful head/board partnership, is a “positive relationship”. That is why careful consideration to the selection of board members and chairs is paramount. The responsibility of boards and their chairs are to support and partner with their head of school. Even if the contractual nexus between the board and head may be vertical, in practical terms it must function as a partnership. However, as with any relationship, when misunderstandings occur, tools can be implemented to restore relations back to a constructive footing. The strength of the ISASA guideline, is that it sets out a mechanism of how to safeguard this foundational partnership to a successful school.
Besides the guideline, for more than a decade, ISASA has published a manual on school governance, A Guide to Effective School Governance, and conducts training based thereon. Regardless of the stature of any school board, ISASA’s governance training and its companion manual, is highly valuable to ensure a sound partnership based governance model. ISASA highly recommends that new heads make this board training a condition of them accepting a headship. In that way, new heads are able to arrive at clear parameters to establish a collaboration of mutual support with their boards.

Leadership stability in schools critical

As a schools organisation committed to quality independent schools, ISASA appreciates the importance of leadership stability in schools. Rather than face instances of a breakdown in the partnership between a head and a board, the initiatives undertaken by ISASA with the guideline on governance as well as how to build positive relations between boards and heads, are proactive efforts to assist member schools to try to avoid the volatility caused by swift departures of heads. It is our hope that these tools are utilised by our members to strengthen themselves as institutions.

References:
1. Little T. (2015) An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education. London: Bloomsbury Continuum.
2. See: https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/spring- 2015/changing-horses-in-midstream-(1)/
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. See: https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/fall-2017/succession-
planning-welcoming-a-new-head-of-school/. 6. See: https://nais.playbacknow.com/6190-405

Category: Winter 2019

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