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How tomorrow's schools cope today

It is 13 years since New Zealand gave sweeping powers to governors. Ruth Brown reports on how they have shaped up

IN a major educational upheaval 13 years ago, New Zealand adopted one of the most autonomous systems of school governance in the world. And school communities have struggled ever since , but with some success, to bear that burden.

As a result of changes ushered in by the 1989 Education Act and labelled Tomorrow's Schools, boards were given unheard-of powers in running schools. The reform attracted very mixed responses. Some acclaimed the new community ownership of schools while others accused the government of exploiting volunteers.

Many of the reforms and their consequences will sound familiar to UK governors - from delegation of budgets to acting strategically, developing relationships with headteachers and battling with inspectors. But while many governors in the UK are still failing to claim justifiable travel and childcare expenses incurred as a result of their volunteer support for schools, in New Zealand "trustees" are paid an honorarium.

However, it is little more than a token. Board members are paid $NZ55 (pound;17.51) a month for what usually amounts to about eight to 10 hours'

work a month. The chair typically receives $NZ75 (pound;23.89) for a workload of about 16 to 20 hours a month.

As in the UK, it is not money that motivates trustees. Chris France, president of the New Zealand School Trustees Association, says most of the country's 14,500 trustees get involved because they can have a direct influence on their children's education.

"I don't think money is an issue," she says.

Also, altruistic notions of giving something back to the community are still strong in New Zealand and many trustees want to do some worthwhile without expecting to be paid.

However, it has taken 13 years to reach this point. Tomorrow's Schools took everyone by surprise, and schools grappled to find people with the skills to put together an annual plan or look at legal contracts - a big problem for schools in poor areas with a scarcity of lawyers and accountants.

There were accusations of overwork (up to 10 hours a week), and lack of support for volunteers who were expected to provide a professional service for "peanuts". One chairperson said the government must be "laughing all the way to the bank" having loaded responsibility for running schools on reduced budgets on to unpaid trustees.

Trustees were angry that when a school was deemed to be "failing" the Education Review Office (equivalent of the Office for Standards in Education) blamed them. On some occasions, the government stepped in, sacked the board and replaced it with a commissioner. Now, while the money is no better, the review office no longer acts as a stick to beat erring boards. If a school is in trouble, managers can be brought in to help the board deal with specific problems.

The blame culture has gone. "People do not feel so threatened now," says one trustee.

And after 13 years of Tomorrow's Schools, boards are better at addressing the important matters and sidelining the rest, says Chris France.

"You look to find other ways of minimising your workload. The important things are having the authority to make strategic plans for the school - that's a prime responsibility - and for the authority to be the employer, that is crucial."

Schools are given operational grants which cover everything from textbooks to building maintenance and funding support staff. In name at least they employ all school staff, although national pay contracts are negotiated directly between unions and the government.

Boards of trustees are made up of elected parent and community volunteers, plus the principal (headteacher), a staff representative and, in secondary schools, a student representative.

About six to eight representatives are elected every three years. They must establish a school charter, set policies and a budget, and produce a five-yearly strategic plan. Chris Gill, a regional chairman of the New Zealand School Trustees Association, says one of his most important jobs is liaising with the principal, discussing progress on meeting targets and generally chatting about what is going on.

"We have a friendship of sorts. It is a pivotal role because if that relationship is not working there is bound to be trouble."

Chris Haines, board chair at Aparima College in Southland, adds: "There is a grey area between management and governance. Principals are in charge of managing the school and we are in charge of governing. If the chair has a good relationship with the principal you can both do things that complement each other without having to worry about treading on each other's toes."

It is all a far cry from pre-1989 when primary schools could not restock the stationery cupboard without consulting an outside body. Few would like to go back to those days. But the School Trustees Association is still working for more training and support from the government to help its members to do their job in a fast-changing education environment.

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